A Good Step… First of Thousands on the Long Road

NAR’s First Board of Directors, 1909. That tall gentleman in the middle of the front row is most definitely NOT Dale Stinton, despite the striking resemblance.

Just saw on Facebook that NAR has renamed the “Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo” — its annual meeting in Washington DC — to “REALTOR Party Convention & Trade Expo“. Seeing as how I’ve been preachin’ (to the choir, mostly) for quite some time that the REALTOR Association needs to focus on its core competency of advocacy, I think this is a good step forward.

Coincidentally, just minutes before I saw that announcement, I read this post on Medium called “Re-Thinking RPAC“. The writer, Michael Oppler, is a young REALTOR whose father, Charlie Oppler, was the former Director of REALTOR® Party Activities. Again, what he writes is worth reading in full. Key paragraph:

Just as the Republican and Democratic parties must pay heed to a Darwinian like imperative to sustain their entities… so to our organization must be equally vigilant when it comes to managing our own evolution. To this end, I can think of no other function that we as members can help to become better funded and more functional, than when we support the advocacy of our own interests…and not for selfish reasons.

And over the past year or so, I have had numerous conversations with AE’s, elected leadership, NAR people, REALTORS, and others about the topic of advocacy by the Association. The winds are definitely blowing towards greater emphasis on political action and advocacy, which is a positive development.

Having said all that, there are two major strategic crossroads coming up soon-ish (or later-ish) for organized real estate. I think it’s worth thinking about for anyone involved with organized real estate, whether Association, MLS, or something else.

First Crossroad: MLS vs. Association

The first major issue, as the Association goes down the more political advocacy route, is the inevitable dissonance with the MLS.

As I’ve written before, the core problem is that the Association and the MLS have diametrically opposed strategic realities:

The MLS must be inclusive, if it is to be meaningful. Having data on 60% of the transactions does no one any good. The MLS has to be not only inclusive, but comprehensive.

The Association, on the other hand, must be exclusive if it is to be meaningful and valuable. Remember, this is the organization whose charter starts with “Under all is the land.” This is the organization that is premised upon zealously maintaining and improving the standards of practitioners, not the MLS.

Therefore, the only real answer must involve the de-linking of the Association from the MLS in some way that allows each entity to fulfill its core mission and core value. All of the data on the one hand, and not all of the practitioners on the other hand.

And as I noted there, the mere thought of delinking the Association from the MLS causes waves of panic amongst the ranks of AE’s everywhere, as they know oh-so-very-well that the #1 reason why licensees join the Association is for access to the MLS.

Second Crossroad: The Self-Contradictory Core Mission

The second problem that Associations must face is that they have two core missions that are in conflict with each other.

First, you have the primary reason for which NAR was founded in 1908 (as the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges):

The National Association of REALTORS® was founded as the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges (NAREE) on May 12, 1908 at the YMCA Auditorium in Chicago, IL. With 120 founding members, 19 Boards, and one State Association, the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges’ objective was “to unite the real estate men of America for the purpose of effectively exerting a combined influence upon matters affecting real estate interests.”

Second, you have the other primary purpose of the Association:

Such interests impose obligations beyond those of ordinary commerce. They impose grave social responsibility and a patriotic duty to which REALTORS® should dedicate themselves, and for which they should be diligent in preparing themselves. REALTORS®, therefore, are zealous to maintain and improve the standards of their calling and share with their fellow REALTORS® a common responsibility for its integrity and honor.

So, on the one hand, advocacy and on the other hand, professionalism.

The trouble is that the current structure of political advocacy is built around having a lot of members. Numbers generate dues, which in turn finances very sophisticated lobbying efforts as well as direct and indirect political contributions — NAR is one of the top heavy hitters in American politics. Numbers also generate political pressure. When NAR’s chief lobbyist goes to talk to a Senator, he can say, “I represent a million people.” It’s not quite as impressive if he has to say, “I represent 200,000 members.”

The same goes at the local level. It’s one thing to walk up to a candidate for mayor and say, “We represent 5,000 REALTORS who vote” and another thing altogether to say, “We represent 1,000 REALTORS who vote”.

Professionalism, however, argues for exactly the opposite. If everyone is Special Forces, then no one is Special Forces. There’s a reason why the Navy SEALS don’t just take everyone who wants to be one.

In many, if not most, of the markets in the country, every single licensee is also a REALTOR, a member of the local, state, and national Association of REALTORS. It is patently not true that every single person in those markets is “zealous to maintain and improve the standards of his calling and share with his fellow REALTORS® a common responsibility for its integrity and honor.”

Therein lies the crux of the problem. On the one hand, the Association has a vested interest in making it much more difficult to become a REALTOR, so as to preserve and to continue raise the level of knowledge, expertise, ethics, and professionalism on the part of those who carry the REALTOR brand. On the other hand, the Association has a vested interest in making it as easy as possible to become a REALTOR, so as to exercise maximum political power, both in money and in votes.

Resolving that dichotomy is the challenge of the second one hundred years for organized real estate.

Only Way Out

There are a lot of ways to try and resolve the conflict, but realistically, strategically, there really is only one general way: Associations have to become minority movements, but one that truly commands the loyalty and attention of its members.

And the only reasonable way to do that is along the lines of what Michael Oppler hints at when he writes about the RPAC ethos. I’ve put it far more simply in presentations past: Redefine REALTOR to mean a politically active and engaged real estate agent.

Let the MLS go its own way, except perhaps as a source for unrelated business income, so that it can achieve its core mission of “all the data, all the time”.

Simple, yes. Not easy, of course. Nothing worth doing ever is. But in that strategic simplicity is the truth of what needs to be done.

We just have to be willing to do it. Maybe one day, in Jerusalem….

In the meantime, even small steps like renaming the Midyear Legislative Meetings as the REALTOR Party Convention are meaningful steps on the journey of a thousand miles.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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