Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We're All Human, Don't You Think?

Recently, almost all of the financial news that has come across my desk, television, or computer screen has been bleak. The dollar is weak almost to the point of collapse. The U.S. mortgage debacle continues to reverberate throughout the world's economy, wreaking havoc in industry after industry. Households are awash in debt. Businesses are cutting back. Food prices are skyrocketing worldwide and food riots are taking place all over the globe. In some places people are starving. In others they are battling one another over political issues that, in reality, can almost always be traced back to economics in one way or another. People with obscene wealth are fighting to keep what they believe is their birthright. People living in abject poverty are fighting to escape what has become punishment for being born to the wrong parents in the wrong society in the wrong era. It's a mess. It's almost enough to bring crusty old men to tears.

The way businesses and individuals and families are reacting to what has yet to be "officially" labeled a recession perplexes and concerns me, one of those crusty old men (well, 54 is not so crusty, I suppose).

Businesses are cutting back on their own engines of survival. Their marketing and advertising dollars are being dramatically restricted and their customer service measurements and expenditures for tracking brand compliance are being slashed.

Individual consumers are complaining about the cost of gasoline and food, while simultaneously griping that they can't afford the gas guzzling SUVs they so desperately want to complement their desired image.

Famlies are cutting back on food in order to pay for gas. Many are struggling to find ways to keep their children clothed in the latest fashion trends, allowing expenses for daycare and medicines to go unpaid.

These things are troublesome to many on many levels, both personally and professionally. But this blog is about associations and I'll turn my attention back to them.

What I find most troubling, professionally, is the lack of a sense of urgency among associations in general. With few exceptions, I see associations reacting, if they react at all, from a dangerously provincial and highly selfish perspective.

Too many associations are forgetting what they are good at: unifying people with common interests to pursue the common good. Rather than rallying around a need, whether that need involves the profession they serve or the industry they represent, associations today too often are either ignoring their potential role in finding broad solutions or are focused on their own survival, ignoring their own important constituents.

I do not suggest that all associations should always focus on their own social consciousnesses. Rather, I suggest that there are times when associations should understand that they are social institutions with social responsibilities.

Despite the fact that an association of flashlight manufacturers has no ongoing and fundamental obligation to provide light to those who find themselves in the dark, it does have an obligation to respond to certain crises. When the association is the only organization that has the structural capacity to provide relief to tornado victims who have lost their homes and have no power, responding to that need is, in my view, a moral imperative. Never mind that responding will be good PR. Responding will be good, period.

What I'm getting at, albeit slowly, is that I'm disappointed to see that some associations are responding badly to their own plights in this economy. Some of the same associations that would chastise businesses for cutting advertising budgets in hard times because advertising is precisely what they need are cutting expenditures for staff when what they need more than anything else is a staff that is hard at work guiding the association through the dangerous and potentially deadly thickets of economic malaise. Rather than pulling everyone together to fight a common threat, they are circling the wagons and sending the weakest out into the firestorm to fend for themselves.

Associations, like the people who belong to them, should be ashamed of themselves if they don't recognize and exercise their abilities to intervene when crises become so fierce as to endanger lives and cultures. Believe me, I'm generally not one to support associations raising funds to support the "cause" of Crohn's disease because the organization's president's son-in-law has the disease. If the president wants to support that cause, fine. If she wants to ask her friends to do the same, more power to her. But one individual's bad fortune isn't sufficient to justify an association of chemists to give one medical condition its undivided attention. But if the society in which that association of chemists finds itself is at a breaking point because of disease or hunger or some other catastrophic social ill, I'm in favor of the organization parlaying its capacity to fight that social ill into a solution. That association of chemists should not insist that it has no business solving a social ill simply because it wasn't formed to do that. That would be rather like a football player refusing to apply a tourniquet to an accident victim's wound because that's not his job.

OK, I'm temporarily off my soapbox. But I hope your association will respond to social needs when they are severe, regardless of the association's mission. We're all human, after all, or at least we should be.