Associations in 2017 – Themes to Reflect On

Welcome to 2017.

We are beginning a new journey this year together as association professionals. In the spirit of the New Year, I wanted to share a few things that have been on my mind over the past few weeks while reflecting on 2016 and considering what this year may hold for us all.

I started a blog series on tech at the beginning of December and I plan to get back to it when it feels right. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea when I kicked it off, but as it turned out it wasn’t. Instead of beating myself up over not just proceeding with the plan since I had announced it, I pulled the plug quick when it didn’t feel right. A recent class I took on governance and strategy was eye-opening in many ways and one of the most important lessons I took away from it is the need to stay conscious and aware of what “feels right” in the moment, and be willing to admit when we begin to sense we have jumped the gun. This holds lessons for me personally and might be useful for the rest of us to embrace as we consider how to dynamically steer our way through the coming years.

So, I’m kicking off 2017 with my personal take on four themes for association professionals to consider in the days ahead.

Commitment – Times come that shake your faith personally and professionally. There is much to be said for allowing ourselves to be human when events knock us off course and admit we don’t have all of the answers. That being said, disruptive times present unique challenges in the way in which we function both individually and collectively as humans. They test our resolve and call for higher levels of commitment above and beyond what we may have known before. In 2017, let’s commit to taking action on behalf of the industries and professions we represent, but also on behalf of our planet and its people. Let’s think beyond our own membership borders to see how our actions impact the world around us. Let’s commit to thinking systemically about our relationship to the wider world that exists outside of our board rooms and narrow self-interests. Let’s create a new ethos and take actions that honor and reflect a new sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all life on the planet. Let’s remember there exists an urgent need for us to pursue policies that lessen our environmental impact. Let’s commit ourselves to making things better for all, not just better for some.

Citizenship – I have hammered on this in the past, but I think it bears repeating. Members are not customers. Associations were not meant to simply provide services for members and other stakeholders to consume. If we continue to pursue this purely consumerist mentality, we will remove a sense of agency from our stakeholders at the very moment we need it the most. Consumerism is easy. It’s the path of least resistance. “We” provide. “They” buy and stay out of our hair. However, the emphasis on “member as consumer” erodes our greater collective sensitivity to the wider civic responsibilities we each hold. In the United States in particular, associations are the direct descendants of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. That being said, a purely US-centric worldview does not advance our cause to the fullest extent possible. We have a responsibility to think beyond our own borders, and recognize there is a global system for us to engage with as well. As such, we have a duty to think of our fellows as citizens in both a local and global sense, not purely customers. Yes, democracy is messy. However, we are the training ground for an active and engaged global citizenry and we forget that at our own peril.

Inclusivity – More than ever, associations must actively pursue strategies to ensure they become and remain open and inclusive on a vast array of dimensions. We often pay lip service to being truly inclusive. I often hear association professionals loudly proclaim they do not engage in advocacy around social issues. More than once I’ve heard the claim that associations represent their industries and professions alone and if members have social issues they want to engage with, they should find another group to dedicate their energies to. Really? So our industries or professions will suffer no ill effects if we have entire membership segments who may be personally injured, marginalized or excluded from opportunity? We don’t advocate for equal pay on behalf of the women we claim to represent? We have no concerns about the educational system and the role we can play in ensuring affordable, equitable access to workplace skills and training? I respectfully submit the “no social issues” lenses need some adjustment. Believing our members should go “dedicate their energies” elsewhere if they are concerned about their health and well-being sends a horrible message. In uncertain times with limited time and resources, do we really want our members to dedicate their energy elsewhere? Will we abandon our members at the moment they need us the most? Nay. We shouldn’t. We don’t have to. It’s a choice we can make to embrace “whole-human” membership. It’s time.

Resilience – One of the most important things I was able to re-focus on over the past few months was the idea of resilience. Ken Wilber discusses these issues and puts resilience in an interconnected, tripartite way. We must build resilience into our strategies as individuals, as organizations and as part of the wider world. There is an interplay between the energy we channel as people, as groups and as civilizations. For ourselves, we have to pay attention to pacing like never before. Disruption requires time to study, time to think and reflect and time to take care of ourselves as humans. As we become more stressed, our ability to optimally function is compromised. Take the time to focus on what you personally need to do to be as effective as you can. Also, we need to build resilience and new ways of thinking into our organizations. Creativity and innovation are best served when we take the time to be fully present in each moment and requires a humility that we haven’t been trained in but we can learn. We have the power to focus on and create more resilient associations and there is no time like the present to start. Lastly, when we are consciously aligned both as individuals and as organizations, we can focus on how to create resilience within our larger society both domestically and abroad. By blending the best of our natures with an ethical commitment that extends to protecting our planet and its people we can create a more harmonious and sustainable existence for all.

I wish us all the best as we collectively walk into 2017 as a community with bright eyes and full hearts. Let’s do this.


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