Professional associations: How are they different from regulators?
At the simplest, professional associations serve the interests of members while regulators serve the interest of the public. But on closer inspection, it's more complicated than that. Ariel Visconti explores in this article on the differences between regulators and professional associations.

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As we emphasized in our ‘Regulators 101’ article, regulatory bodies are very different from professional associations. But although they serve distinct purposes, many of their goals, interests, and activities can be similar, and in some cases, it can be difficult to tell if an organization is a professional association or a regulator at first glance. Here, we’ll break down what professional associations do and how they are both similar and different from regulatory bodies.

What is a professional association?

First, we should clarify what we mean by professional association, as it’s a broad term with various definitions. Simply put, professional associations are organizations comprised of professionals in a field who give a “voice” to the profession, advocate on behalf of members, and advance the interests of the profession.

Professional associations can also be called “professional bodies,” “professional organizations,” or “professional societies.” The word “association” in an organization’s name can be misleading, as it’s not a reliable indicator of its nature and purpose. For example, in New Brunswick, the regulatory body that governs nursing is called the Nursing Association of New Brunswick, and in Ontario, the Ontario Professional Foresters Association (OPFA) regulates the practice of forestry. We’ll stick to “professional association” in this post as it is the most common term, but it’s important to note that to determine whether an organization is a regulatory body or a professional association, you must look at the organization’s structure, mandate, and authority – not its name.

Professional associations exist in both regulated and unregulated professions, and can be set up at the national, provincial and/or local levels. In unregulated professions, some professional associations will take on an oversight role for their field as part of their mission statements, and many will also include a public interest element in the work that they do. The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), for example, states that it seeks “to regulate its practice for the benefit and protection of the public interest” and “to serve the public interest by upholding a standard of proficiency and code of ethics.” But this does not make it a regulatory body.

In regulated professions, professional associations often work cooperatively with regulators to protect the integrity of the profession. For professional associations, this mutual goal also entails working with the public to ensure awareness of the importance of their profession and to promote public trust in professionals. But while much of their work also benefits the public, they are always working on behalf of professionals. For example, while the Ontario Nurses’ Association is committed to “advocating for patients, residents, and clients” as part of its work, its stated mission is “to defend the rights of and advocate for nurses and health-care professionals who care for the health of Ontarians.”

Main activities of professional associations

Professional associations undertake a wide range of activities that promote the well-being of the profession and members, including:

  • Offering designations or certifications.
  • Collecting membership dues, selling products/services, and raising funds.
  • Promoting the profession to attract new entrants.
  • Adopting professional/ethical standards (in some cases).
  • Lobbying policymakers for changes that benefit the profession.
  • Providing job boards, professional development, learning resources, and networking opportunities.
  • Educating members on their rights and generating public awareness about issues impacting the profession.
  • Working with unions during negotiations for new collective agreements.
  • Recognizing the achievements of professionals with awards.
  • Offering exclusive discounts and perks to members.

Main activities of regulators

We fully explored regulators’ responsibilities in our ‘Regulators 101’ post, but it is useful to recap some of their main activities for comparison, which include:

  • Issuing licenses, registering, or certifying members, and collecting associated fees.
  • Setting standards of practice and a code of ethics.
  • Participating in the legislative process governing the profession.
  • Accrediting (or recognizing) educational programs.
  • Ensuring licensees meet continuing education requirements.
  • Providing an up-to-date register of licensees to the public.
  • Investigating and resolving complaints against licensees.
  • Holding disciplinary hearings and imposing remediation measures and/or penalties if necessary (for certain regulators).

Key differences between professional associations and regulators lie in their purposes and powers

The interests of professional associations and regulatory bodies are not always at odds. In fact, they share several common goals, including (as mentioned) wanting to protect the integrity of the profession, ensure the success of professionals, and maintain public trust in professionals. But they ultimately serve distinct purposes and have different powers, which are revealed by their mandate or mission statement.

There are two primary distinctions between professional associations and regulatory bodies that are most important. First, while professional associations may (if the profession is unregulated) take on an oversight role of the profession, only regulatory bodies have legislative authority to govern their professions. Second, while professional associations can – and often do – act in the public interest, it is not the reason they exist. Ultimately, professional associations exist to advance the interests of their professions and practitioners, while regulatory bodies exist to protect the public.

As we can see from the above lists, some of the main activities of regulators and professional associations can seem to overlap. But there are several key differences, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Membership in professional associations is almost always voluntary for professionals, but registration in a regulatory body is mandatory.
  • Regulators issue licenses, certify or register their members, which is required for them to practice; professional associations can offer designations or certifications, but these are optional and not required to practice.
  • Both participate in the policymaking process, but regulators do so to mitigate/address risks to the public, while professional associations lobby to benefit the profession and members.
  • Both can adopt ethical standards or codes of ethics, but regulators have the power to enforce them while the power of professional associations in this area is limited.
  • Both collect fees from members, but regulators do not sell products/services.

Another noteworthy difference between professional associations and regulators is their governance structure. Regulatory bodies are governed by a council that includes both professionals and public members, while professional associations are governed by a board of directors that doesn’t have public representation.

Can a professional association become a regulator?

The idea of granting existing professional associations regulatory authority through legislation represents one possible path towards self-regulation in Canada. The Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Ontario is an example of an organization that went through this process, gradually building regulatory powers over several decades.

The HRPA has an over-80-year history of advocating for the human resources profession in Ontario. Before 1990, it was known as the Personnel Association of Toronto (PAT) and existed “to establish and encourage the acceptance and maintenance of uniform province‐wide standards of knowledge, experience and ethics for all persons engaged in the field of human resources management.” In 1990, it became the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario and the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario Act, 1990 recognized it as the body to grant and regulate the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation. In 2013, the HRPA officially became a Tier 1 regulator in Ontario with the passage of the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013 (RHRPA). Along with expanded regulatory powers, the HRPA received an explicit new mandate, which is “to promote and protect the public interest by governing and regulating the practice of members, students and firms registered with the Association” in accordance with the RHRPA. Interestingly, however, the new legislation did not introduce licensing. A license is still not required to practice human resources in Ontario, but the HRPA still offers designations that are protected by the RHRPA, demonstrating that discerning a regulator from an association is not always an easy task.

Professional associations and regulatory bodies share common goals but serve distinct purposes

Professional associations and regulatory bodies often collaborate with each other to benefit both the public and professionals. Sometimes it can initially be quite difficult to tell them apart, and adding to the confusion, in Canada there are several examples of “dual mandate” regulatory bodies that regulate professionals while also serving as professional associations. But that’s a topic we’ll explore in a future article as the trend to further decouple associations from regulators continues.

Most commonly, while their goals and activities can overlap, professional associations and regulatory bodies are distinct organizations with unique powers and purposes. Regulatory bodies exist to serve the public interest and are accountable to the government and the public in fulfilling that mandate. Although the public is an important stakeholder of professional associations, they ultimately exist to advance the interests of their field and the professionals they represent.

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Ariel Visconti
Written byAriel Visconti
Ariel Visconti researches and writes on government and politics, regulation, occupational licensing, and emerging technologies.

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