Friday, June 10, 2011

Words Make Worlds - Part 6 - Advocacy vs Storytelling

(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 Washington, we must look in the mirror and realize that in many cases we share in the blame. 

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.


  1. Shelly,
    Can I just say that I love you and you're spot on? However, a share in the blame on winning at all costs must be given to the system we operate under. This war began when associations were forced to fight for the same pool of resources. Losing funding means losing jobs means losing members means lost revenue. Unfortunately, this is how some organizations justify their government relations program. The good news is that there are some associations are looking outward in their advocacy.

    I work for the Public Interest department of my association. We apply psychology to issues related to human welfare and social justice. Our members were on the Hill today lobbying to maintain a network of nationwide centers that treat child and family trauma. As one member mentioned in her meeting, "It's not about the centers, it's about the kids we treat."

    As associations, we must tend to the care and feeding of our members. However, it shouldn't come on the backs of the general public.

  2. Shelly,

    Spot on, but how do we get others to look at the long-term, what's good for society? That's the challenge and corporate America which is who associations represent are not good at the long-term view. The recent "swipe fee" vote had two big groups - retail v. banks - at each other for their own economic reasons, not for the good of the consumer. Although I think the consumer won with the lower fees.

    Keep plugging away and calling us to task.

  3. Geez, I hate to be Debbie Downer but until corporate boardrooms change and become more enlightened, I can't imagine the association boardroom, and therefore association CEOs and lobbyists whose paychecks depend on that board, doing anything that stands in the way of increasing or maintaining a member company's revenue. Yeah, there will be compromise on some issues, after all these aren't evil people (I've seen tremendous generosity and caring in my old industry), but I just can't imagine an association board taking action that cramps their own industry without first putting up a fight. Maybe my cynical perception is colored by my particular trade association past, I'd love to be proven wrong on this, believe me, because I think in the end, the enlightened will thrive, that's my optimistic perception.

  4. Thanks for the comments and support guys -

    @step73 - I agree with you that the fight, in many cases, is being brought to us and the system itself shares in the blame for it.

    @Leslie - there is no doubt that corporate interests are formidable. (I've blogged about my disgust over Citizens United). I'm not sure how to get people interested in the longer term view. But we have a responsibility to at least try...(and attempt to avoid being complicit).

    @Deirdre - you aren't being a Debbie Downer at all. And don't get me wrong, I'm not against a vigorous, principled (even controversial) fight. But I think every decision we make to "go to war" on an issue needs to run through a rubric that at least questions our motives and potential impact on the whole.

    Thanks for adding your great thoughts to the conversation!



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