Building Back Better

The Social Purpose of Associations: A Call to Action to Serve the Greater Good

26th October 2021

The intersecting crises of the pandemic, soaring inequality, the climate emergency, and the urgent need to combat systemic racism create a burning platform for organizations everywhere – including and especially associations – to reconfigure their mandates to serve the greater good. In this article, Coro Strandberg argues that there is no better time than now as society recovers from the COVID shutdown.

Associations have historically been focussed on their members’ immediate priorities. However, forward-thinking associations now have their eyes on future value propositions to help their members not only survive, but thrive, in the longer term. Singly and by working together, associations can shape the future, not just respond to it. And now they have the tools and best practices to do it.

A recent benchmark of association practices (The Sustainable and Just Association: Canadian Benchmark of Association ESG Practices) reveals that associations are already evolving their offerings to help members improve their social and environmental performance and impacts. The benchmark is based on the Just and Sustainable Association tool developed by the author and commissioned by the Canadian government and was informed by 59 primarily Canadian professional and sector associations. 

While Canadian-based, its insights can be generalized to other countries and contexts. Top findings include:

  • Many associations designate responsibility for sustainability programs to key staff, including VPs, directors and managers of sustainability and social impact
  • To help members address societal issues, associations typically focus on at least one social theme (e.g. equity, diversity and inclusion), and one environmental theme (e.g. climate change, including adapting to climate change and transitioning to the low carbon economy)
  • Associations have a range of practices including helping members address environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges through collaborations and providing ESG standards, benchmarks, and certifications, while some set ESG targets for members to pursue together
  • One national association is even planning to implement a “massive-impact project”, to move the needle on a societal issue in the country by mobilizing its members to tackle it

These associations are driven to accelerate member progress on ESG to ensure relevance of themselves and their members, and to demonstrate sector or professional leadership. They also believe it helps foster positive stakeholder relationships, including with government, while building member resilience.

The benchmark also found that many associations have a social purpose as the reason they exist. Here are two examples:

  • We advance the mission of our member institutions to transform lives, strengthen communities and find solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our world (Universities Canada)
  • We empower associations to transform the world (Canadian Society of Association Executives)

Associations with a social purpose recognize that by meeting society’s needs they also meet member needs. Association leaders moving in this direction say: “We need to be bold and brave”, “We need to be solutions-oriented”, “It’s a point of advantage for our association”, “We must lead by example and walk the talk”. 

But what is a social purpose? This new tool, “The Social Purpose Continuum”, offers a formula to help boards and leaders define what their associations are really about at their core.

What is a Social Purpose Association? 

  • It is one whose raison d’être is to create a better world. It has a North Star that sets out why the association exists – the greater good to which it aspires.
  • It makes its social purpose its quest, its enduring reason for being, forever pursued.
  • It uses its social purpose to better support their members to serve society. 

Your social purpose is the societal reason your organization exists.

While many organizations use the terms mission, vision, and purpose interchangeably, they are differentiated this way:

  • A mission (or mandate) is what your organization does / how it does it.
  • A vision is where your organization is headed.
  • Your purpose is why your organization exists.

Associations whose boards are uncertain of going all-in on adopting a social purpose may instead take a first step and come up with a value or belief statement or a refreshed mission statement, where the mission becomes their quest — their aspirational North Star. 

Benefits of Becoming a Social Purpose Association

The benefits of becoming a social purpose association include:

  • Ensure relevance
  • Demonstrate leadership
  • Raise association brand and profile
  • Attract and engage members 
  • Attract partners to collaborate on shared societal goals
  • Attract board members and staff
  • Support members’ quests for purpose

There are risks of inaction. By not digging deep into the meaningful role of the association, sector or profession in addressing society’s challenges and realizing a future where all can thrive within planetary boundaries, associations run the risk of losing their relevance. They risk challenges in attracting and engaging members, employees, and partners, putting themselves and their members in jeopardy.

How to develop your social purpose

Here are some tips to help uncover your organization’s core purpose (adapted from: “The Story of Purpose”, Joey Reiman, 2012):

  1. Survey members to find out which of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (aka society’s needs and challenges) might create risks or opportunities to members if not addressed
  2. Hold a brainstorm session to determine the resources, assets, and platforms the association can leverage to play a greater role, for example: member relationships and their relationships; brand equity and convening power; reach into regions and communities and national and international networks; partnerships and stakeholder connections; expertise of staff and volunteers, including policy and advocacy expertise; communication channels 
  3. With this information in hand, hold an ideation session on the higher purpose of your association, using these questions: What greater role can the association play in the region, country, or world? How might we contribute to the greater good through our association? What is the societal benefit of our sector/profession? How do we benefit humanity? How can we support our members to better serve society?

The Venn diagram below sums up this approach, where the intersection of what the world needs and what you and your members bring create big, bold opportunities for the association and its members to be a greater force for good.

The Purpose Sweet Spot

Associations that unlock a social purpose as their reason for existing and acting transcend self-interest and create a virtuous circle of progress. They mobilize their assets, relationships, platforms, influence, reach and power to help put their members and society on a positive course, attracting others to help them innovate and scale. Purposeful associations use the pandemic “pause” to reimagine their role and the role of their sectors and professions in society and to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Coro Strandberg is President of Strandberg Consulting, based in Vancouver, Canada. She has 30 years’ experience advising governments, businesses and associations on strategies to leverage the market as a force for good. Coro is a nationally recognized Canadian thought leader on the future of business, sectors, professions and associations in society. She is a co-founder of the Social Purpose Institute at United Way.

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