Building Back Better

The Social Purpose of Associations

20th June 2022

In her latest contribution to Boardroom’s Building Back Better series, Vancouver-based Coro Strandberg reveals additional findings of a recent survey among American associations—and how some of them have made sustainability and ESG part of their mission and operations.

We’re in a moment of awakening about the role of organizations in society. Organizations are examining what they stand for in a world undergoing fundamental transformation. This includes associations who are at the interface between their members and the stakeholders whose expectations are evolving rapidly as the world grapples with the challenges wrought by the pandemic, climate change, growing social divides and systemic racism. 

To better understand the role associations are playing to help their members address these intersecting challenges, a survey was conducted of 13 national U.S. associations representing plastics, forest and paper products, consumer products, commodities, manufacturing, chemistry, printing, agriculture, and construction industries. It used the benchmark conducted in 2021 of Canadian associations: The Sustainable and Just Association: Canadian Benchmark of Association ESG Practices. Central to both surveys is the following rubric that gauged efforts of associations to help their members build their social and environmental practices and to flourish in an uncertain world.

The rubric uses the language of ESG, which stands for environment, social and governance practices and the SDGs, which stands for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs were unanimously adopted by all the countries in the world as society’s goals to 2030. (Most Canadian and American associations use the term “sustainability” to refer to the social and environmental practices of their members.)

As revealed in the first Boardroom article of this two-part series, the top sustainability or ESG priorities of these American associations include:

Top Association Sustainability Priorities

  • Equity, diversity, and inclusion 
  • Transition to the low-carbon economy
  • Circular economy, waste, and recycling

Check the article to learn about:

  1. the benefits of having a sustainability or ESG program for your members if you don’t have one
  2. the practices you can pursue to help your members improve their ESG practices
  3. the ESG actions taken by American associations this year
  4. their approaches to collaborating with others on ESG, and 
  5. their ESG maturity (and to benchmark your own!)

Serving society and public good

Another notable finding of the US survey is that most have adopted a societal or social purpose as the reason their association, sector or profession exists. As set out in this Social Purpose Association Toolkit, a social purpose association is an association which exists to support its members to better serve society and the greater public good. A social purpose sector or profession is a sector or profession that exists to benefit society. Most of the associations surveyed who had not yet moved in this direction expressed interest in becoming a “Social Purpose Association”. 

One of the associations that completed the survey, the Plastics Industry Association, states on its website that it is:

“a purpose-driven organization that supports the entire plastics supply chain. We believe in advancing sustainability and being a good steward of resources. From the technological advancements we enable to the possibilities we create we’re dedicated to helping our members shape the future and make a positive impact every day.  We’ve expanded the resources and tools available to members, to help us come together and help positively shape the future of the industry”. 

The Plastics Industry Association, and other association leaders, set their North Star to help their members shape the future and make a positive impact every day. This decade more and more associations will be defining their social purpose as their reason to exist, the details of which are set out in this Boardroom article: The Social Purpose of Associations: A Call to Action to Serve the Greater Good.

Where to from here? 


These two resources can be guides to associations seeking to develop effective ESG or SDG collaborations with their members:

Intersectoral Collaboration: An assessment tool to help collaborations succeed

Business-Led ESG Collaboration: A guide to help organizations set up an ESG collaboration to tackle shared challenges and opportunities together

These case studies can be useful resources for ideas on how to develop an association ESG program:

Sustainable Association Case Studies

From the plastics association positively shaping the future of the plastics supply chain, to the broad aluminum industry collaborating on public policy to create an enabling environment for their transition to a circular economy (see the first article), the ESG future of associations and their members is in sight. 

More and more associations will map and engage their broader ecosystem to create ESG transition pathways for their sectors and professions. They will recognize that most ESG issues are too broad to tackle on their own and require collaboration with ecosystem actors. 

For complex ESG issues of which there are many, progress necessitates large-scale and long-term undertakings, which require collective action involving multiple sectors working together. This includes collaborating with other associations along your members’ supply chains, and with peer associations, along with NGOs (non-governmental organizations), governments, and financial partners. To accelerate an inclusive, low-carbon, circular and purpose-driven economy, collective action and transition strategies will prevail in the years ahead. 

These practices and more are being turned into an ESG framework and rating system for sector and professional associations by the CSA Group, a leader in standards development and in testing, inspection, and certification around the world, whose purpose is to hold the future to a higher standard. It is issuing a special publication in October to help associations advance the ESG and SDG performance and practices of their members. It includes a weighted rating system of about 80 ESG best practices, generating bronze, silver, gold, and platinum scores. The nearly 20 associations peer-reviewing the guidance document find it to be timely, comprehensive, and easy to use. It provides a step-by-step guide on how to develop a best practice ESG/SDG program, how to use it to inform strategic planning and public communications, and how to align the organization and members around ESG as a priority. After the report’s publication this fall, the CSA will assess the potential to turn the framework into a National Standard of Canada and potentially into an ISO standard in the future. Contact the author if you would like to be put on the list to receive a copy when it is available.

American leaders and their Canadian counterparts are showing the path to accelerated social progress for associations and their members. It becomes possible to see a future in which associations rally and mobilize their members and stakeholders to address the social and environmental challenges faced by society. Leaders will pursue measures to shape a flourishing future for the benefit of their members and humanity.  Some have already started. To become a purpose-driven, sustainable, and just association, grab the roadmap and join them.

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