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  • Writer's pictureIoannis Pallas

Towards a Political Association

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

This article was written by Ioannis Pallas, ESAE Association Manager, and published by our partners at BoardRoom Magazine.


Associations have been doing things differently lately: Several of them started raising topics like Environment, Social et Governance (ESG), and adopted Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. Others embarked into addressing directly the general public and added political criteria for choosing their next conference destination. In fact, more and more associations are now taking a stance and begin to talk about topics that they didn’t cover in the past.

Instead of limiting themselves within their immediate ecosystems, strictly fulfilling their mandate, a growing number of associations is becoming increasingly extrovert, aiming to influence public opinion, demanding change from policymakers and imposing change where they can in their respective sectors of activity.

From Brexit to the COVID pandemic, and from digital transformation to the war in Ukraine and rising wage costs, association executives that successfully navigated their organizations through disruptions are realizing that business as usual will not cut it anymore. Non-profits and professional societies are becoming more agile, inventive and lean, but most of all, political, in order to adapt to challenges and better serve their members in a perma-crisis environment. This transformation affects every facet: from internal operations and HR, to Advocacy and Events and although it is still a relatively small number of associations showing the direction, the vast majority is about to follow.


Politics in the EU Public Affairs

The world is fragmenting, leading associations to become increasingly involved in political matters compared to the past. Similarly, in the business realm, CEOs frequently face demands from their clients and stakeholders to assume the role of political leaders. In response to the conflict in Ukraine, certain associations have stepped up by terminating memberships and leveraging their influence and expertise to ensure the effectiveness of sanctions. This trend is particularly pronounced in the energy sector and financial services, which have found themselves at the forefront of Western sanctions. Likewise, these associations are extending their involvement to areas such as sustainability and corporate social responsibility, aligning them with their organization’s mission and vision.

The rise of social media has given associations a valuable channel to circumvent advocacy, by directly addressing the wider public, and using it to exert pressure to decision-makers. Associations in the Food&Drinks sector are very innovative in that regard, especially in matters of sustainability. On the other hand, entire sectors are being cut out from having access to influencing legislation, oftentimes over arbitrary justifications. MEPs will simply not take any meetings, and EU Commission Directors will not pick up the phone anymore. We saw that with tobacco and we are seeing it also with oil and plastics, in a concerning level for transparency and open access in the EU.

Legislative proposals are less and less based on facts. As a result, we are ending up with less well-grounded and fact-based legislation as the political trends are shifting the attention away from evidence-based argumentation. The more salient a topic is, the less influence an association can wield, overshadowed by a volatile public opinion and organizations that are less transparent and with more nuanced agendas.

Associations need to make that voice stronger if they want to be heard. They can start by professionalizing their communications and adopting convincing narratives if they want to be persuasive. Coalition building will be key, even with traditional competitors or unconventional allies, and the clean energy sector here is a good example, where associations representing oftentimes competing clean energy resources formed alliances to push for greener legislation.


Communications to the rescue

The importance of communications is also evolving, as associations are asked by members and external stakeholders to take position in more topics than they did in the past. A clear, direct and (preferably) honest message is the goal, but becomes harder to achieve. Association leaders were always required to be good negotiators, and able to synthesize diverse opinions. It then lies to communicators to bring the message to the right audience in the right tone.

Nevertheless, the more political an association becomes, the less able it will be to keep everyone happy. Taking a stance results in creating adversaries, either among policymakers, NGOs, or competing industries as we saw with positions around Brexit. Consistency and inventiveness with its communications will help the association navigate through complex political issues and avoid PR minefields.


Associations & ESG

Policymakers and the general public alike are starting to demand for more tangible actions from corporations and less greenwashing. This will inevitably rub off on the associations, both with regards to their members, but also with regards to their operations, and associations in the appliances industry or in urbanism are excellent examples. We observed membership-based organizations incorporating sustainability principles and practices, not only within their internal operations but also extending their impact to their members. In some cases, these principles were even utilized as a requirement for membership eligibility.

The day may not be far when in order for an association to be part of an EU project, or to be considered as a trustworthy counterpart, it will need to have sustainability integrated in its mission statement, and a proven record of change. Associations need to start aligning with the UN SDGs today and convince their members and stakeholders accordingly. Several Associations, especially in the fields of energy and technology are positioning themselves as flagbearers in this effort. Interacting with and learning from them will prove beneficial for the association community as a whole, and it will strengthen its voice.


The Politics of Events

Association meetings and events are getting politicized too. Not only topics such as sustainability and carbon footprint reduction are gaining importance in choosing a destination or even conference center, but also the state of play in the country or region where the meeting is held. A few associations have changed the destination of their congresses as a reaction to legislation that was passed affecting the safeguarding of minorities or other human rights. Associations working with the LGBTQ+ communities are for instance paving the way, first in the U.S. and more recently in Europe. At the same time, countries with negative record in the protection of freedoms are being excluded from RFPs altogether.

Following regional turmoil, associations suspended members and cancelled meetings and events. Scrutiny is rising, and the day is not far when an association that holds its activities in dubitable parts of the world should expect to be slammed by its members and external stakeholders. The geopolitics of event planning will drive many association choices in the future.


It starts and ends with governance

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 5DEI) are becoming central points of focus across the pond. U.S.-based associations are increasingly adopting and applying DEI guidelines for their hiring policies, remuneration and professional advancement to make sure their associations are becoming more inclusive. Fortunately, some of that is rubbing off in Europe, adapted in our culture and historical background.

From potential speakers, refusing to participate in all-male panels, to open discussions about wage disparity and the representation of women and sexual, national, ethnic or other minorities in Boards and leading positions, associations are leading the way in their respective industries by adopting DEI charters and promoting them among their members and external stakeholders, like the European Society of Association Executives with its members across the continent. Diverse teams are more effective and creative, aiding the association and its sector in the process.


HR is given the importance it deserves

Wellbeing in the workplace is under the spotlight after the COVID pandemic. The traditional workplace has become more flexible, but burnouts have radically increased, forcing associations to work with less resources, often failing to attract and retain talent. But more importantly, this has led many professionals to become disoriented, frustrated, financially precarious or even worse off. Association leaders now realize that leadership is also about being more empathetic towards colleagues. Many organizations are integrating policies to prevent burnouts and adapt the workload to the lives of their staff instead of the other way around. A great example here comes from associations active in the pharmaceutical sector who quickly realized the importance of supporting their colleagues.


Conclusions

Is this a cyclical trend that will eventually subside, following the trends in the wider public sphere, or perhaps political is here to stay and become the new normal?

Either way, associations cannot afford to stay on the sidelines if they wish to remain relevant. From losing members and failing to retain talent, to having their influence reduced and finances taking a hit, they need to stay up-to-date with the trends and act sooner rather than later. Their natural position as honest brokers among conflicting interests, their proven transparency record and inclusion of diverse stakeholders, grant them the legitimacy to lead by example; up to their leaders to make this happen.

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