Back to the Future for Social Responsibility in Associations

Listening to the expert on sustainable companies advising associations on social responsibility at the American Society of Association Executives online SR summit yesterday, I was struck by just how retro social responsibility should seem to associations.

Chris Laszlo, a Case Western Reserve University professor, said associations should help their members understand where their activities create value for their shareholders and where they may be destroying it or at least are perceived as doing so. Perception is just as critical as reality. Associations should help their members understand risks within a complex system and better anticipate societal expectations. He said associations then can work to create initiatives that enhance their members’ value proposition with both shareholders and stakeholders.

Sounds a lot like working for your members while working for the public good—a basic ethical premise that attracts many talented people into association and nonprofit work. Associations have always been at the forefront of image building for the industries and professions they represent. Done with integrity, it was always much more than whitewashing. Stakeholder summits are not a new concept for associations; understanding stakeholder needs has simply gotten more challenging in our complex and interdependent world. And the ante has been upped because it is even harder to hide bad behavior now in the Internet age.

What may be new for many associations in social responsibility are some of the performance indicators that have become very important. I worked for a recycling organization in the early 90s. Then only a few progressive associations made the effort on recycling waste, purchasing recycled content goods or consuming less. Today recycling is a priority and associations are looking at many other important environmental indicators like energy use, materials consumption and reuse, and other carbon footprint reduction strategies.

Associations are in the people business and so issues of human rights and social justice have near been too far off the radar. What may be shifting is the sense of how far that responsibility should extend as associations examine a growing have-have not gap in every arena of endeavor. More associations are accepting responsibility to reach out to minorities and the less advantaged here and in other countries to share the wealth of their knowledge and capacity building.

Laszlo makes the case that associations and nonprofits should not pursue social responsibility for moral reasons alone. They need to understand the business case. For a long time associations have understood that trust may be intangible but necessary to do business. Their members need to create trust with their stakeholders and their associations are in the best position to convene this dialog about a future that works well for everyone.