Thursday, March 3, 2011

Words Make Worlds - Part 1 - Association Management, Human Ecology and IPOD

(Last August, I became deeply inspired by work coming from David Cooperrider and Lindsey N. Godwin at Case Western - Positive Organization Development: Innovation-inspired Change in an Economy and Ecology of Strengths. This paper is a MUST READ for anyone interested in innovation in our association community.  In it, they use the phrase "words make worlds." We often attempt to think innovatively while not recognizing the common terminology we use can work to block us in.  This series of posts will break from my normal format and is dedicated to asking a single question. How can we change our language and think differently about the work we do?)

Setting the Foundation

Before I begin my next series of posts entitled, "Words Make Worlds" I want to set the foundation for where I am coming from.

Associations have known for some time that they need to change their way of thinking.

For too long, we have aspired to be watered down cousins to the for-profit corporate entity.  We have adopted policies, procedures and practices better suited for “customer” as opposed to “member” or, dare I say it, “citizen.”  We waste precious time on comprehending various management fads or how to apply concepts like “balanced scorecards” and other corporate tools to our environment.

Associations are literally societies within society.  Sociologists have developed a canon of information on how societies form and evolve.  If we accept their theories are applicable to nation-states (which is just one form of societal innovation), we can extend those principles out to the non-profit trade and professional association as a “societies within society,” for indeed they run with the same basic engine.

Much of the corporate management theory co-opted and applied in the non-profit arena largely ignores the most profound difference between non-profit and for-profit enterprises - the shared leadership structure between volunteers and professional staff.  Many of the ideas we have attempted to implement have not only failed to gain positive traction, they have worked to our detriment.  We do not operate at our best when using terms such as membership value, return on investment, consumers and stakeholders and do ourselves a disservice by diminishing our focus on the association’s role in society as democratic institutions.  By attempting to centralize decision making in a command and control environment, we risk losing touch with our constituencies and compromising our ability to reach our full potential.  We need a different skill set and a different understanding.  We need make no apologies for being who we are.

In order to develop a different understanding and skill set, we would benefit from looking for information from sources external from the association community that best describes how societies evolve. In Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay, sociologist Amos H. Hawley provides the most persuasive (and dense) explanation of how organized groups emerge within our society. For the first time, we can draw upon a theoretical framework to explain how associations emerge (and will continue to do so) in our society. Hawley draws a clear distinction that his theory only explains the functional aspects of a social system. But we need more than a functional analysis to understand associations in depth. We must also explore the normative order including norms, customs, traditions and myths.

By carefully blending aspects of Hawley’s theory with other mainstream sociological thought, I am making the case that associations must understand how to mimic the functional aspects of social systems as he describes. We must also develop the norms that enable the organization to establish the kind of social cohesion that support the individuals within it. The associations that can embrace the functionalities of this ecological framework as well as enhance the normative aspects within their social system will be far more successful than those who simply pursue the “cult of the customer.”

One of the more compelling parts of the Human Ecology theory deals with the notion of change within social systems and, by extension, organizations. Hawley discusses change in terms of growth (maximizing resources on hand) and evolution (introducing innovation). Mr. Hawley examines in detail, with support from other authorities, how individuals mobilize to form social systems to address a threat or challenge in their immediate environment. This goes to the heart of why trade and professional associations are formed and what they are expected to undertake.  Our collective mission is not to make sure we have “ROI” on a dues “investment” but to provide platforms to facilitate change and evolution in our industry or profession as a whole as well as enhance the lives of the individuals within it.

David Cooperrider and Lindsey N. Godwin from Case Western recently released a paper on their new theory of Innovation-inspired Positive Organization Development or IPOD.  Both my husband Mark and I are practitioners and proponents of Appreciative Inquiry which is one of the cornerstones of the IPOD theory.  We have seen the powerful changes that have taken place in those trade and professional organizations in which we have used the Appreciative Inquiry technique as part of our visioning or governance structure analysis processes.  (We are also currently conducting an open AI project with Association Executives: Provocative Proposals for Future Change.)

The other theoretical models used in IPOD include a blending of ideas that many of us in the association world have been playing around with but have not yet coalesced into a manageable model – positive organizational scholarship, positive psychology, design theory, as well as bio-mimicry and the rise of the sustainable model.  The work is a bold step forward and a beacon for those of us who work with organizational development and change and know there has to be another way.

I have been an association practitioner for seventeen years.  Up until now, I have never run across something as simple and powerful as the conceptual framework behind a human ecology based view of societal/organizational development and function.  The addition of IPOD theory gives us both an understanding of how societies develop, what they are for and how to propel them forward into a brave new future.

In the next series of posts, I will be positing ways we can change our language and common terminology to pave the way for actual, sustainable change in those trade and professional associations who choose to eschew the culture of the deficit and embrace this new event horizon.

(Side note: Recently I was invited to participate in a grassroots oriented, non-partisan think-tank in San Francisco - Melos Institute - a 501(c)(3) established specifically to find ways for volunteer and staff leaders to deliver meaningful and transformative experiences to their members.  I am offering whatever assistance I can provide.  The project invites input, comments and suggestions from any and all who are interested in it.  Take a few moments to look at the project overview and let them know what you think. I will be blogging more specifics over the next few months.)


  1. Fascinating stuff, Shelly. If I'm understanding it right, you're advocating that we stop viewing associations through the lens of a for-profit organization (with customers to serve and a hired staff to serve them) and start using a model based on a democratic society (where, I suppose, the citizens see to their own needs through elected officials and public servants). I'm looking forward to reading more!

  2. Eric -

    You hit the nail on the head. Better yet, this is an older form of societal interaction that predates what we know of as "modern capitalism."

    More to come....



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