Legacy Beyond Impact: Understanding the Enduring Significance for Associations

17th June 2024

Ioannis Pallas, ESAE Managing Director, explores the intricate concept of legacy, differentiating it from immediate impact and emphasizing its lasting significance for associations.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are given an association to manage. An association with staff, members, stakeholders, policymakers to advocate to or to consult on topics related to our industry and yes, of course, operations: communications, events, publications, training programmes… the full package!

Let’s keep our eyes closed for a little longer and start imagining that our association is forced to close shop. Emails are left unread (more than usual), team meetings are ignored, no one shows up for the scheduled appointments and no one is picking up the phone when it’s ringing, assuming the association still uses phones. 

Still with me? Then let’s keep our imagination going, and let’s start pondering on what the association leaves behind. I don’t mean the unpaid rent, or salaries or VAT or any pending projects. Our non-existent association has enough reserves for all its obligations to be fulfilled diligently. Its disappearance from the face of the associations community will leave a small or a big void, depending on its size and influence, but nature doesn’t tolerate voids for long: it shall be filled up very soon by others. Let’s not worry about that. 

In fact, let’s not worry about anything in particular. Associations may be legal entities, but they also are living organisms; at some point they are created, they fulfil their purpose – or not – until some day they cease to exist. It is all part of life. 

After this last, philosophical point, let’s reflect on the juicy part: What has the association actually left behind? Is it the European projects it undertook or the selfies with policymakers published on X? Is it the conference tickets it sold, or is it the hours and hours of online trainings it certified? Was it all worth it in the end, and what is its impact after all?

Creating legacy

I would argue that an association is successful only to the extent that it is fulfilling both its vision and mission. And the result of this alignment leads to legacy creation, even when not intended.  

Now, the term legacy can be a tricky one. First of all, it is tough to measure, although this shouldn’t keep us from trying. Secondly, its effect is not only felt by its members or stakeholders, but also by people and organisations altogether, today or later down the line, that the association may never be able to send a questionnaire to. It can be the future generations benefiting from a sustainability action or unintended consumers taking advantage of a food safety clause in a legislation bill. It can be patients having better access to healthcare, or local communities becoming more prosperous thanks to initiatives undertaken around a big or small event.  

Lastly, legacy is complex because, when successfully achieved, it transcends conventional measures of success. The staff’s performance review will not be based on this, and the Board’s self-aggrandising speeches will not include it. The members may not recognise the benefit of it either, but it is still part of the association’s vision and mission, written in bold letters on the association’s homepage and repeated as a mantra during recruitment interviews. It is the very reason why the association exists in the first place.  

Legacy vs Impact

Many tend to confuse legacy with impact. While impact has immediate or short-term measurable results (a synonym would be outcome), legacy goes beyond the obvious goals of an association’s actions. The outreach is broader and longer in time. Ultimately, legacy is what impact aims at. 

Here are a few examples to illustrate this.

1) An Association of Linguists holds its annual conference in, Australia. The conference launches a programme to help preserve aboriginal languages and teach said languages in local schools. Does this count as legacy? Based on what I think when I think about legacy, the answer is no! This does qualify as impact though, and an impressive one to be sure. Legacy can be traced in the people who will learn those almost-forgotten languages, or in the people who will be inspired to become linguists thanks to this initiative, all because an association executive and an events manager sat together to connect the organisation’s annual event with the its vision and mission. 

2) Let’s take a trade association for a change, advocating on behalf of its members vis-a-vis policymakers. Thanks to its effective communication and advocacy strategies, the public discourse is positively influenced. That’s Impact for you. Eventually, a piece of legislation at local or even European level is approved, profoundly affecting the nature of the industry the association serves. The benefits are reaped by members and citizens alike for years to come. That’s legacy. 

Still blurry? Let’s try a metaphor.   

Throw a pebble in a lake and observe the ripples shaped in the water. We can measure their sequence, speed and size if we want to have a go at it, but what happens when those concentric ripples eventually reach the shores? How will they change them and to what purpose? 

That is legacy in my opinion. And we always need to keep in mind, when undertaking an action, that the benefit we create should be greater than the damage we cause. 

Associations often preach about striving to make the world a better place. Legacy is the way they can actually make it happen. 

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