Sylvia Gonner, CAE
Sylvia Gonner, CAE, is founder and CEO of CultureWiz and vice chair of ASAE’s International Associations Advisory Council.
While setting clear goals is the best way for U.S. associations to address needs and opportunities in Canada, keeping these common mistakes in mind and paying attention to cultural, legal, and other differences and requirements is a good way to start.
“Canadians are just like us” is a common assumption U.S.-based associations make about their Canadian members. Oftentimes, they group Canada with the United States, ignoring important differences between these two distinct countries and cultures. This is not only a mistake but also an affront to Canadians, who are increasingly sensitive about being lumped in with Americans and want their separate identity.
Recognizing this, members from the International Associations Professionals Community in Collaborate [ASAE member log-in required] recently met to discuss ways to address the unique needs of Canadian members. Whether actively pursuing members in Canada or simply anticipating the needs of Canadians joining their associations, here are seven mistakes that U.S.-based associations needs to avoid.
While Canadians and Americans enjoy a warm rapport, they culturally have a love-hate relationship that calls for greater awareness and sensitivity to their differences. Canadians aren’t particularly nationalistic but may feel slighted when they’re simply overlooked. For example, a common mistake is to merge Canadian members with U.S. totals at times under a “North American” label, rather than track and report them separately as international members. Particularly when Canadians account for the largest membership outside the U.S., the optics of not giving them the same consideration and visibility as other countries is a mistake.
When it comes to interactions with Canadian members and volunteers, it’s important to consider some cultural differences as well. For example, compared to Americans, Canadians are typically more low-key, more modest, and less pushy. They’re less concerned with individual needs and focus more on what benefits society. Moreover, American’s informality and casual dress codes may not always suit Canadians. Therefore, developing intercultural sensitivity and consulting reference guides such as When Culture Collide by Richard D. Lewis or David Livermore’s Customs of the World is as important when working with Canadians as with any other culture.
The best way to find out what matters to Canadians is to ask through focus groups, pilot programs, and surveys.
Organizations that operate globally quickly learn they must pay attention to fundamental differences in time zones, languages, and other details that affect their communications and events. Yet many fail to consider that Canada also has important differences with the U.S. that can lead to confusion or puts the burden on Canadian members to convert their currency, metric system measurements, order of dates (day/month/year), and six time zones. To avoid being US-centric, it’s also vital to check the Canadian calendar to ensure events aren’t scheduled during major Canadian holidays, such as their Thanksgiving celebrated the second Monday in October.
While American associations are increasingly sensitive to the stringent GDPR European privacy laws, they may miss similar restrictions in Canada, as well as requirements around bilingual French-English language translations. To anticipate complexities and ensure compliance when operating in Canada, it’s best to seek legal counsel particularly when separate legal entities, websites, and other country-specific options are being considered.
Offering distinct services for Canadian members is mainly a matter of relevance, particularly when U.S. models don’t apply or when significant value can be gained from having a unique offer. The International Downtown Association (whose Canadian constituency has been growing modestly) considered launching distinct services for their members in Canada, such as Canadian-specific knowledge-sharing and networking. However, they learned during a pilot program that these services were less valued than engaging Canadians in research and public policy unique to their jurisdictions.
The best way to find out what matters to Canadians is to ask through focus groups, pilot programs, and surveys. When conducting membership surveys, a good practice is to separate responses from Canadian members and add specific questions that will capture their distinct needs.
Associations should not miss out on leveraging the knowledge and expertise that can come from Canada. For example, while more and more U.S.-based organizations are focusing on DEI, this is nothing new to Canadians. As the most multicultural country in the world, Canada has a very long history of protecting Indigenous people and heritage. Antiracist education, as well as DEI initiatives, are commonplace in Canada, so these models and the insights of Canadians may well serve American associations undertaking such efforts.
U.S. organizations typically acquire members in Canada organically and over time whether they try or not. They simply respond rather than anticipate needs, even creating models on the go without any strategy in place. Before long, they debate what would be the best structure to serve members and needs in Canada, whether through chapters, alliances, or affiliates before having clarity and agreement on what they wish to accomplish. Goals ranging from building a community of practice, strengthening local capacity (perhaps as part of goodwill efforts), connecting with Canadian professionals, or expanding the organization’s membership in Canada should inform the strategy and model to pursue.
While setting clear goals and creating a strategy are ultimately the best way for U.S. associations to address needs and opportunities in Canada, keeping these common mistakes in mind and paying attention to cultural, legal, and other Canada-specific differences and requirements is a good way to start.