Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog?

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Who’s responsible for association culture? The association staff, or its membership?

[Association culture? Here’s a definition by Jamie Notter.]
“Organizational culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values.”
—Jamie Notter, Definition of Organizational Culture

To explore this question, let’s be clear about which culture we’re talking. I view an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the organizational incarnation of a community of practice. Every association has an internal culture, formed by its staff, while existing in an external culture, its members’ relationships with each other and the industry or realm they inhabit.

In a dynamic association, these two cultures constantly interact with, inform, and influence each other. This leads us to the question.

Who’s responsible for external association culture?

Is it an association’s staff, or its membership? At first glance, internal association culture is the direct responsibility of its staff, usually steered by the board, which (hopefully) includes and represents members.

But who’s responsible for external association culture, which determines how members learn from and work with each other, and how the association impacts and influences the wider world?

Here’s how Joe Rominiecki, writing for Associations Now, describes what external culture can look like:

“It might be collaborative or it might be competitive. It might value academic accomplishment or it might value real-world experience. It might embrace diversity or it might fear it. Whatever your members’ culture might be, it’s there.”
—Joe Rominiecki, Where membership and culture meet

Later in the same article, Joe says:

“If any player has the position and influence to change the culture in an entire industry, it’s an association, because that’s exactly the sort of change an association is designed to do.

I disagree.

I think the primary purpose of an association is not to change “external culture”—i.e. the culture of its collective members—but rather to support and strengthen the culture. If you see associations as multi-purpose tools for communities of practice, then it’s the community itself that determines what kind of supporting and strengthening capabilities the association builds into its toolkit.

The internal culture then becomes the way in which the association structures and organizes itself to best support the external culture embodied in its membership.

Healthy external association culture

I’ve consulted with hundreds of associations over the last three decades, have served on numerous boards, and been a member of many non-profits. In my experience, healthy associations foster continual conversations between staff and members. These conversations develop the association in response to the wants and needs of the membership, the resources available to the association, and the pressures and challenges posed by the association’s commitment to its mission in the context of its changing external environment.

Such conversations can involve questions like:

  • What should the association be doing that it isn’t (or what should it do less of)?
  • How political should the association be?
  • How much member and societal education should the association provide or support, and what kind?
  • What useful things can and/or should the association do that individual members can’t and/or won’t?

There are no “right” answers to such questions. What’s important is that association culture allows and expects staff and members to ask them. And, of course, that there are mechanisms in place to:

  • Support the resulting conversations; and
  • Create appropriate organizational and programmatic changes when needed.

The devolution of responsibility from association members to staff

Finally, we get to the title question asked by this post: Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog? One unfortunate trend I sometimes see, especially with larger associations, is that responsibility for the external culture swings towards the staff at the expense of the membership. This is understandable. As associations grow, individual members tend to assume that the association leadership will “handle” the external cultural issues. (“Hey, I’ve got a business to run! That’s what my association’s staff gets paid to do!”) But that doesn’t mean that the staff should take over this important responsibility.

Instead, it’s vital that staff maintain a leadership role supporting how an association defines its external culture. That includes staying in close touch with member needs and wants, and the external political, social, and cultural environments. How an association responds to wants, needs, and external events, must always involve the entire association community — staff and members — so the organization responds and changes in a healthy way.

Photo attribution: Flickr user itsgreg

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