The Limits & Limitations of Empowerment

21st September 2022

International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk explores the very definition of empowerment and how it relates to international associations. But exactly how far are organisations willing to go in this direction?

What’s in a word? In the case of “empowerment”, all too often a large helping of feel-good optimism with a side order of self-delusion! Let’s face it, when was the last time you heard of any association (or company or other type of organisation, for that matter) that was againstmore empowerment? It’s like taking a stand against “progress” or “excellence”. 

Dictionary definitions identify two distinctive types of empowerment: the giving or delegation of power or authority, and the giving of an ability or capacity. Whilst distinct, the two are clearly interrelated: delegating without ensuring someone is given the tools and skills to accomplish the task or role is just as futile as developing capacity without allowing that person enough free rein to express their ability. Clearly, we are not dealing with vague, progressive values, but with a complex and challenging process.

Synonyms give us a few more clues to empowerment’s true nature: enabling, equipping, enfranchising, and perhaps most graphic of all, emancipation.

When it happens

For empowerment only really occurs when leaders give up meaningful, significant, material power, otherwise it’s simply looser-than-normal managerial supervision of delegated tasks and roles (perhaps the most common misuse of the term), or an organisational reallocation of responsibilities. True empowerment is (and should be!) scary, difficult, and perhaps most importantly, unpredictable, because you are no longer making many of the most critical decisions.

Empowerment should focus on mission, goals and broader objectives, not processes and job descriptions. If it doesn’t result in novel methodologies, new working relationships between involved parties, lots of experiments, increased risk-taking, and unexpected solutions, you’re definitely not doing it right! 

Empowerment when defined as giving ability is just as risky as passing over power. It requires giving time, space and budgets for personal development in a way that is not necessarily dedicated to delivering a specific task. It takes courage and confidence in your own organisation’s appeal, knowing that those staff could choose to use their new skills and capacity for other purposes and employers! 

Empowerment isn’t just the top-down process of a leader giving authority to management team members. It involves two-way power transfers between CEO and Board, lifting up new and young staff, enhanced roles and responsibilities for volunteer members and the staff who interact with them. With relation to association meetings it means ditching top-down planning (and pre-assigned room set-ups – PLEASE!) and standardised paper/session acceptance-evaluation processes, and embracing an output-, impact- and objective-focused design ethos and giving more power and responsibility to the delegate. 

But in all these changed relationships and power-dynamics, one thing needs to be a constant: without identifying and creating ability, capacity and resources, empowerment will inevitably be “talking the talk, not walking the walk”!

Why it’s important

It’s important for associations not to only apply this concept to their internal relations: building a network of empowered partners can also be extraordinarily valuable. Key cities that really understand and value associations, such as Global Association Hubs partners, Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC comprise one obvious category with whom to build such trust-based relationships that go far beyond hosting meetings. Other associations that share your values and mission are another, but be prepared to give up a degree of sovereignty in return for increased synergies and greater influence in your advocacy goals.

Empowerment came up as a hot topic in both keynote presentations and corridor discussions at this year’s ASAE annual conference in Nashville, with numerous invaluable insights into how associations should think about this concept.

Reinforcing the high-level nature of empowerment, Jaime Nolan, President and CEO of National Speakers Association stated: “My approach is to set the Vision, then apply loose or wide guardrails and provide budgets and other resources to create the right environment for success. We want to maximize the potential for different solutions to challenges and opportunities.”

Paul Bishop, President and CEO of Water Professionals International emphasised the organisation-wide cultural importance of empowerment, how it should become a part of the DNA of the association, with a particular emphasis on learning from, and not penalising failure: “My job is to simply remove the roadblocks. If staff fail, they should fail with a good safety net. I had a particularly proud moment in a tough week recently: my newest young staff member saying WPI is “the most employee-centric organisation I’ve ever worked at”. Empowerment has to be organisation-wide, central to an association’s culture.”

And the particular challenges of embracing empowerment when working with a global and diverse community were eloquently expressed by Allison Ferch, Executive Director of GALA, the Globalization & Localization Association: “Working with diverse, globally distributed stakeholders creates challenges for empowerment, especially in the context of board and committee work. It requires cultural sensitivity and an openness to different understandings of authority, participation, and duty. Any association that wants to empower its members or staff working in different regions needs a plan that includes clear expectations for engagement, a flexible attitude that allows for pivoting and adapting, and a mechanism for feedback that enables course-correction if things aren’t working well”.

This piece is part of the exclusive partnership between Boardroom and the Global Association Hubs, which comes as an innovative response to the increasing decentralization of international associations as they look to develop their activities globally.


This year for the first time, ASAE organised a half-day Global Summit prior to the Annual Conference. The keynote presentation by Thomas Debass, Chief Partnerships Officer and Managing Director at the Office of Global Partnerships in the US State Department, illustrated perfectly a key challenge of true empowerment, that it represents a scary challenge to the status quo towards which we’re all tempted to revert: “Positive societal change only occurs when we set “unreasonable goals” for our partnerships and our projects. Reasonable goals reinforce the status quo. George Bernard Shaw famously stated: “All progress depends on the unreasonable person.” Allow talent to flow. Focus on problem-solving, not process or actors.” 

Not an easy task

Empowerment isn’t easy: I hope this article has made that clear. Nor is it a commonplace phenomenon, within associations or organisations in general or society at large. But any association that can truly embrace it will be setting up a strong foundation to survive and thrive in the uncertain future we all face. 

One final observation, and a plea from the heart: the one thing a CEO should never delegate is “buck-stopping”. Empowerment should never be an excuse to pass blame onto others!

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