Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Power of Associations, for Good or Bad

At heart, I'm an optimist. I believe that humanity can come together to achieve things that are beyond any individual's power.

In my view, associations represent the ultimate potential of the human experience. They represent the possibilities that humanity brings to the planet; the promises that, as a species, we can collectively fulfill. Associations embody opportunities for people who share common interests to achieve common goals. At their very highest level, associations can enable the efforts of groups to coalesce into exceptionally powerful forces for the advancement of virtually every aspect of our existence. That's pretty heady stuff. It's the sort of thing that makes it easy to understand why working with and through associations can get in one's blood and can become a powerful motivator in one's own life.

But, I'm no pollyanna, either.

Just as they can give legs to the best visions and ideas and motives among us, associations can epitomize the worst characteristics of humanity. When the members and leaders of associations permit it to happen, association structures and processes can trample over the "right" thing to financially and/or politically enrich individuals and groups in ways that cause untold damage to others.

Laws in the United States that work to prevent collusion, restraint of trade, price-fixing, and any number of other breaches of trust and good will by associations were not passed in anticipation of bad deeds. They were passed because legislators and regulators and the public learned, first hand, because they are instruments of humanity, that associations can be tools of greed, abuse of power, and all manner of other crimes and moral failings.

It is because I recognize that associations, like governments, can be instruments of abuse, neglect, blackmail, economic conniving, and social injustice, among other things, that I am a believer in every association taking steps to ensure that its good name and resources are not hijacked for malevolent purposes.

The first defense against abuse is simple: leaders and members alike need to understand and accept the organization's reason for being and its values. Let's take, for example, the Mid-Texas Association of Cattle Prod Manufacturers (a fictitious organization...I hope). Its purposes, as outlined in its bylaws, are "to advance the safe and appropriate use of cattle prods and to protect the industry's economic interests." By itself, that would allow the Association to try to drive competing products out of business by any means possible. Let's say, though, that the Association had expressed its values as: 1) fair competition, 2) honesty in all business dealings, 3) adherence to the law, and 4) creativity. Those values would preclude firebombing competitors' worksites, "dumping" products below costs, and lying about the number of people who had been injured in cattle prod accidents.

The bottom line is this: like most human endeavors, associations are generally honest, law-abiding, endeavors that engage in activities that have value. But it's very important for members and leaders alike to be "watchdogs" to ensure that the beneficent roots of the organization are maintained over time.

A simple code of ethics which lays out the values of the organization and specifically precludes certain self-serving behaviors can go a long way toward preventing problems. Of course, that code of ethics cannot simply be created and left to gather dust on the shelf It must be regularly reviewed and broadcast to the membership as a guiding principle of the association.

Nurture the best in associations and the best is what you'll get. Never allow an association's capacity to nurture the wrong leaders take hold, though, lest all the good deeds an organization might do go undone.