A professional association (also called a professional body, professional organization, or professional society) is usually a nonprofit organization seeking to further a particular profession, the interests of individuals engaged in that profession, and the public interest.
The roles of these professional associations have been variously defined: "A group of people in a learned occupation who are entrusted with maintaining control or oversight of the legitimate practice of the occupation;" also a body acting "to safeguard the public interest;" organizations which "represent the interest of the professional practitioners," and so "act to maintain their own privileged and powerful position as a controlling body." This, in turn, places the burden of enforcing a profession ban upon these associations as well.
Such bodies generally strive to achieve a balance between these two often conflicting mandates. Though professional bodies often act to protect the public by maintaining and enforcing standards of training and ethics in their profession, they often also act like a cartel or a labor union (trade union) for the members of the profession, though this description is commonly rejected by the body concerned.
Therefore, in certain dispute situations the balance between these two aims may get tipped more in favor of protecting and defending the professionals than in protecting the public. An example can be used to illustrate this. In a dispute between a lawyer and his/her client or between a patient and his/her doctor, the Law Society of England and Wales or the General Medical Council will inevitably find itself plunged into a conflict of interest in (a) its wish to defend the interests of the client, while also (b) wishing to defend the interests, status and privileges of the professional. It is clearly a tough call for it do both.
Many professional bodies are involved in the development and monitoring of professional educational programs, and the updating of skills, and thus perform professional certification to indicate that a person possesses qualifications in the subject area. Sometimes membership of a professional body is synonymous with certification, though not always. Membership of a professional body, as a legal requirement, can in some professions form the primary formal basis for gaining entry to and setting up practice within the profession; see licensure.
Many professional bodies also act as learned societies for the academic disciplines underlying their professions.
As a practical matter, most professional organizations of global scope (see List of professional organizations) are located in the United States. The U.S. has often led the transformation of various occupations into professions, a process described in the academic literature as professionalization.
In countries where the law entitles defendants to a jury by their peers, the general public may not be considered sufficiently knowledgeable in a field of practice to act as a peer in some legal cases. For example, the professional associations do not always concern themselves with licensure or the equivalent or government regulations. In the United States, journalists seek to avoid government involvement in their work or "official" definitions.
Inter-professional associations have been defined as private organizations, recognized by the State, that group together participants from all stages of the same agricultural commodity chain (filière in French), with the objectives of elaborating policies, guaranteeing equity among the members, facilitating the improvement of the performance of the chain and defending the interests of the members. There are around sixty such associations in France and several in Francophone countries of Africa. A particular feature of inter-professional associations is that the membership is made up of associations that represent the individual chain professions. This is in contrast, for example, to commodity associations in the United States where membership is largely of individuals and companies. Many developing countries have few or no associations that cover an entire commodity chain and there would appear scope for the development of such organizations to promote improved liaison with governments.
In the United States, PA (Professional Association), used in conjunction with a business name is a corporation formed by professionals such as lawyers, engineers, dentists, and medical doctors. In the past, the so-called "learned professions" were not allowed to operate as corporations. But most states have now enacted a professional corporation or association act that allows professionals to practice under their bedsheets, corporate rules provided that all shareholders are members of the profession. A PA is attractive to professionals because it provides some of the tax advantages and liability protections of a business corporation.