Difficult Days Ahead for Associations in a Polarized World

Growing political polarization in America and elsewhere is forcing tough choices and greater public scrutiny onto associations, intensifying their difficulty in taking stands on difficult issues. Associations need to anticipate where they may face new fault lines that could splinter and break up their societies.

Polarization has been working its havoc long before any resistance movement to the Trump Administration. Trump’s efforts to disrupt established policies introduce a new urgency into these decisions and weigh them down with partisan politics in ways that are hard to manage.

Here’s a quick roundup of examples that demonstrate how difficult it has become for associations to maintain a nonpartisan, low-profile stance on the issues of the day. Each of these likely frustrated or alienated some member constituency, even as they inspired and unified association leaders to do what they perceived to be the right thing.

  • Today the National Funeral Directors Association and others were featured in a Washington Post story for hosting events at the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC. NFDA’s guest speaker: Newt Gingrich. The implication: currying favor with the new administration. This is not the first WP story reporting on organizations booking into Trump properties.
  • Where groups meet is now very much a political decision. NCAA refused to schedule tournaments in North Carolina until it mitigated its controversial position on LGBTQ rights. The American Society of Association Executives and a growing list of others have added valuing diversity and inclusion into their decisions about where they meet. However, not every member sees these social issues as their association’s priority.
  • The March for Science April 22 was a remarkable turning point in which many mainstream scientific associations actually sponsored and organized their members to take to the streets on behalf of science. It was quite awkward and unfortunate that at least one major scientific conference, Experimental Biology, opened the same day in Chicago. Participants and meeting organizers were torn between supporting the march and preserving attendance in previously scheduled education sessions.
  • Associations with a global constituency are hearing their non-US members are anxious and may not register for US-based meetings in protest of the administration’s immigration enforcement and travel visa policies. Under an “America First” foreign policy, associations may have to rethink their aspirations for creating a global presence. The ugly truth is most US-based associations have a good percentage of members who never bought into the association’s globalization aspirations anyway.
  • Most associations have an equity fault line whether they acknowledge it or not. Do they stand for access to healthcare, education, jobs, and other forms of economic opportunity? Not everyone agrees on what obligation the “haves” should have toward the “have nots”.

It has never been easy for broad-based associations to come up with substantive and meaningful positions on public policy and legislation. Because the devil is always in the details, consensus positions tend toward bland and safe. But in today’s increasingly polarized environment with the glaring spotlight of social media and 24 hour news cycles, associations can no longer flee into the safety of obscurity. Some stakeholders will be paying closer attention when the right issues hit public awareness, and members definitely will evaluate their relationship based on the decisions made.

If associations aren’t asking in their membership and exit surveys how their members feel about the positions their associations are taking, they must add this question. Some annoyed or angered members will quietly slip away, the same way people slip away from churches when they disagree with denominational policies or messages in sermons. And here’s an untested hypothesis worth exploring: some associations might see a spike in membership and engagement if their members begin seeing them as vitally relevant to today’s issues. Scientific societies could be the first place to test this hypothesis.

The stakes in this polarized world are as high as an association’s future sustainability and harmony. It’s imperative to seriously revisit the people and processes around these critical governance decisions. The choices ahead will be tough enough; they needn’t be made more difficult because an association lacks transparent and inclusive processes of deliberation, and its leaders are tone-deaf about their members’ diverse interests and the consequences of their decisions.