What Does DSA Do Anyway?

Tell most people that you work for a trade association, like DSA, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. After more than 15 years working for associations (nearly 13 of them with DSA), I’m used to it – and it’s OK, because what really matters is the work we’re doing on behalf of direct sellers.

But every once in awhile it doesn’t hurt to remind people, friends and critics alike, who it is that DSA’s activities benefit, and what we aim to accomplish.

DSA is supported financially by direct selling companies that choose to uphold the ideals of the DSA Code of Ethics, which speaks to the interests of both sellers and consumers. That doesn’t mean just any company can be a member (some direct selling companies successfully complete the minimum one-year pending period required to display the DSA logo – others don’t, or choose not to), and despite the source of the funds that support DSA’s activities, the focus and impact of DSA’s work extend far beyond just its member companies.

Even given a poor economy, DSA has nearly 250 active and pending member companies, strong revenue figures (which are also indicative of strong industry performance), a growing pool of applicant members and an enthusiastic and active Board of Directors comprised of industry executives who recognize the importance of our business model to the US and world economies, as well as to the millions of individuals who call themselves direct sellers.

So what does DSA actually DO? In short, we call it the “Three Ps” – Protect, Police and Promote.

In its role of protecting direct sellers DSA works with legislators and regulators at the Federal, state and local levels to ensure proposed legislation won’t negatively impact companies OR their sellers. Sometimes we work proactively to update existing laws or implement new ones – all with the goal of keeping the marketplace open and fair for direct sellers. DSA also has a political action committee that, on a scale that by Washington standards is very modest, helps to support candidates for elected office who have been supportive of direct sellers and small business in general. However, DSA’s leaders have always prided themselves on being able to prevail on the merits of our positions. It’s nice to be able to support those who believe in us, but despite what some may believe, the size of one’s PAC is not always an indication of one’s political clout. 

DSA’s second role is that of policing the industry, which is based on the association’s Code of Ethics. The Code sets the standard for the ethical behavior that consumers and independent direct sellers should expect from ALL direct selling companies. It is DSA members, however, that are held accountable to the Code by an independent Code Administrator who receives, investigates and, where necessary, resolves complaints by consumers or sellers. DSA believes the Code promotes honest, ethical behavior, but it also provides a mechanism for relief if there is an occasional lapse. So why doesn’t DSA’s authority extend beyond its membership? The Code is a form of voluntary self-regulation and DSA is not a law enforcement agency. The collective DSA community sets the standard and companies are free to decide if they choose to meet it. In the big picture, though, the mere existence of the Code raises the bar on ethics so even companies that are not members are wise to aim to meet it.

The third role of the DSA is that of promoting the industry. An important phrase to remember here is that a rising tide lifts all boats. DSA members have a vested interest in ensuring the phrase “direct selling” evokes a feeling of goodwill in the marketplace. Companies do their part by upholding the Code of Ethics and ensuring the actions of their sellers are consistent with the ethical bar it sets. DSA works to educate the public about what direct selling is, the benefits it provides to individuals and the economy, and what customers and sellers should expect from a direct selling experience. So how does DSA accomplish this? Well, if we had the budget of the “Got Milk” campaign or the NBA we would pour millions of dollars every year into a national advertising campaign that extols the merits of direct selling. However, DSA’s much more modest level of funding requires a more targeted approach. It involves building relationships with consumer groups (this is done primarily through the work of the Direct Selling Education Foundation), securing earned media placements in print, broadcast and online, and continuously taking the pulse of the public at large to determine what messages resonate and then how best to deliver them. It is true that given the opportunity DSA will seek to highlight member companies as examples of all the good that is embodied in direct selling, but in the end, a job well done will soften the marketplace for ALL direct sellers. It will mean sellers can focus on the unique selling proposition of their particular company, versus having to first debunk myths, negative stereotypes and misunderstandings that can (and should) be addressed at an industry level by the industry’s trade association.

As society is in a constant state of evolution and change, it can seem at times that fulfilling any of the “Three Ps” is a never-ending quest. Just as it has been for the past 40 years and earlier, there will always be new legislation to consider, there will always be bad actors who don’t meet the accepted industry standards and there will always be critics of our industry and those who simply haven’t experienced all the good that direct selling can do for individuals, communities and the economy. But then again, it is the wise who understand that most things in life are journeys and not destinations, and the only alternative to evolution is death, so by that account, I’ll take that blank stare when I tell someone I work for a trade association, because it’s one more person whom I can enlighten about the benefits of direct selling.

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