(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?)
This is the last post of the series. Back to my normally scheduled programming of ranting next week.....
I have long believed that associations have a critical role to play in any democratic system. Clearly, we are citizen training grounds and operate with principles that are easily translatable to our societal governmental system writ large. However, we have done ourselves a disservice and, in some cases, earned the scorn that has come along with the term "special interests" by behaving in ways that are really beneath us.
But where did we go wrong? When did public policy become a war zone? When did we decide that advocating for our members interests, in spite of what might be good for society as a whole, become our paramount concern?
I believe it came from a slavish obsession with members being customers instead of being active citizens. Associations, convinced that demonstrating a “return on investment” on membership dues is of paramount concern, often turn their conversations in the government affairs arena to “winning….at all costs.” What other, more powerful weapon do associations have in a “democratic” society to demonstrate “member value” than “winning” in the legislative and regulatory arena?
Unfortunately, it all depends on what you define as “winning.” In a society that functions from a position of fear, reinforced by the media at all turns, “winning” becomes less about meaningful change and more about preserving the status quo. Preserving the status quo is antithetical to innovation and progress. Instead of recognizing our unique position as societies within society with a duty to benefit the whole even at a cost to ourselves, many of our associations have become wholly, and sometimes selfishly, focused on winning every legislative fight for “their members” without considering the consequences. When we complain about “gridlock” in
, we must look in the mirror and realize that in many cases we share in the blame. Washington
How many times do associations advocate against the public interest solely on behalf of preventing their members from absorbing costs, changing the way they do business or perhaps changing their chosen profession? I understand associations who represent oil and gas interests might passionately advocate against making any changes that will impact the consumption of fossil fuels. This is ostensibly “in the best interests of their members.” But is it really? Is it in the best interest of society? What if your members are working in a dying industry that will eventually collapse under the weight of scarcity and depletion? What are you doing to help them adapt, and help the larger society benefit from a cleaner world? Are the roadblocks to progress and change you so vigorously defend sustainable over the long term? Are your choices ethical or simply expedient? What kind of narrative could you create by offering a noble sacrifice for the good of all?
Beyond today’s chapter, how does your story really end?
By creating a new story for ourselves – as guardians, protectors and stewards of society might we also be able to develop new, heroic narratives for our legislative agendas? Instead of giving in to a culture of fear and scarcity and let’s work for a future where legislative, regulatory and public policy goals are focused on benefit and abundance for all.