Five Key Questions to Drive Your ESG Framework

Donovan_AIC and ESG December 14, 2022 By: Kristi Donovan, CAE

As associations put more focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, it’s important that they involve stakeholders and make sure their strategy aligns with their organization’s values. A look at five questions to use to start conversations around ESG.

Association executives are navigating the role of their organization in advancing environmental, social, and governance initiatives. There has been an elevated need for a formalized and proactive strategy due to the mission-driven purpose of associations and the strong ESG stance embraced by the private sector.

If your association is looking to develop an ESG strategy, here are five questions to ask to engage stakeholders in discussions and uncover ESG strategic priorities that align with your organization. 

1. What Are the Key Goals and Targets That Resonate With Stakeholders?

The purpose of ESG discussions is to create the space for organizations and professionals to recognize their impact and make choices about their future. Creating tangible goals and objectives and key results (OKRs) is a critical step in creating your ESG framework. To establish your goals and OKRs, you can start with research initiatives to reveal which ESG priorities resonate with your stakeholders and what their commitment is to different aspects of ESG. This is an opportunity for associations to take an honest look at their impact on these issues and weigh stakeholder perspectives in the context of their industry/profession and its relationship to the issues. Once you have the data, use it to inform facilitated goal-setting discussions with your board and employees that can later be incorporated into your strategic plan, competencies, and programs. 

Association Spotlight: The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) set the goal of advancing DEI principles in medical education. They are developing tools for individuals, organizations, and communities that aim “to add depth to ongoing efforts; help guide curricular and professional development; and facilitate critical reflection, formative performance assessment, cross-continuum collaborations, and improvements in healthcare services and outcomes.”

2. What Is Our Time Horizon?

Determining whether the ESG initiatives are on a short, medium or long-term horizon can help formalize the steps, objectives, and timeline for the initiatives. It can also help forecast the financial investment and resources needed to work toward the vision. Setting this time-horizon goal also brings accountability to stakeholders since the progress can be tracked, measured, and articulated in strategic discussions. 

Association Spotlight: The American Institute of Architects is working "to exponentially decelerate the production of greenhouse gasses contributing to climate change" with a goal of net-zero emissions in the building sector by 2030.

3. How Will We Integrate ESG Into Organizational Reporting Structures, and How Do We Measure Success?

ESG is a critical investment in the social capital of the industry/profession you represent, and it is a long-term investment that stakeholders need to believe in. Associations may be tempted to trim back on their efforts if stakeholders don’t clearly realize why they are engaging in the efforts and tracking progress. Incorporating ESG measurements into your dashboards and reporting structures will communicate that ESG is a priority and help your team evaluate the resources needed. You can use the data to measure progress, as well as to define the connection from profitability and revenue back to the ESG strategy.

Association Spotlight: The Society for Personality and Social Psychology leverages attendee data to make decisions on where to host meetings based on carbon footprint.

4. What Resources and Skills Are Needed to Accomplish ESG Goals? 

Work cross-departmentally to identify the resources needed (e.g., employee time, financial investment, program and policy development) to implement ESG goals. Undertake market research and utilize industry studies to uncover the operational and competency needs to implement each initiative. 

Association Spotlight: The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics undertook research to better understand member needs and interests around industry sustainability. Leveraging the research, AIAA gathered a cross-departmental team of stakeholders to explore how the association could comprehensively address the topic utilizing staff and volunteer expertise, as well as its portfolio of products and services.

5. How Are Associations Partnering for Exponential Impact? 

Associations can make a collective impact when they combine resources and mobilize their stakeholders. Look for ways to partner with associations and businesses to advance your ESG goals through campaigns, petitions, volunteer projects, and so forth. In addition, be on the lookout for associations that are advancing the goal you are working toward and reach out to find ways to collaborate. 

Association Spotlight: The American Psychological Association, American Public Health Association, International City/County Management Association, National League of Cities, and YMCA of the USA have joined forces to transform workplace culture by prioritizing employee mental health and calling on leaders to sign onto an initiative called “Striving for Mental Health Excellence in the Workplace.” In doing so, leaders make a commitment to support employee mental health and influence a workplace culture shift.

A strategic focus on ESG can strengthen relationships and trust between stakeholders and the association, optimize investment returns, improve overall association strength, and positively impact our world. Start these crucial conversations around ESG and then leverage sustainable business practices to create even greater impact. 

Kristi Donovan, CAE

Kristi Donovan is a practice director on the strategy and innovation team at McKinley Advisors. She joined McKinley with more than 20 years of experience working in professional and trade associations.