Actions for Associations in a Polarized Society

Polarization November 9, 2018

American political and social polarization is forecast to grow in the future, while declining public trust in institutions will make it increasingly difficult to build bridges across social divides. Several ASAE ForesightWorks action briefs describe steps associations can take to prepare for these challenges.

Associations are community-focused organizations that support member expertise and advance knowledge, but the future may bring challenges to these core purposes. Public trust in government, media, science, and medicine is falling, feeding division and erosion of the social fabric. In an environment of polarization and suspicion of institutions, any action, whatever the intention, could be perceived as political.

Many leaders already feel pressure related to these challenges and wonder: What do we do if things get worse?

ASAE ForesightWorks examines these possibilities and recommends steps that association leaders can take to prepare for possible outcomes. The research suggests that associations must communicate deliberately and effectively to maintain, or earn, public trust for their members and industries. The role of associations in knowledge creation, dissemination, and curation will be pivotal to achieving that trust.

Prepare a Communications Plan

Associations are already being called upon to take stands on political issues that they might previously have remained silent on. Because issues can become politicized overnight, leaders must be prepared to respond quickly to prevent the spread of misinformation or misunderstanding.

The ForesightWorks Splintered Society action brief recommends that associations have clear issue management plans in place before hot-button issues arise. Response speed will be critical, as a delayed response or a perception of indecision can indicate untrustworthiness to an already skeptical public. Communications that establish a position should reinforce the organization’s transparency and point, where possible, to the facts that contributed to its position.

Increased polarization means that even neutrality will be taken as a political stance. Leaders will have to weigh the organization’s values and member needs before commenting on an issue—or deciding not to comment. Some issues will be divisive within an association’s membership. Developing policies and procedures in advance will help leaders quickly mediate issues to preserve the sense of belonging across the member community.

Because issues can become politicized overnight, leaders must be prepared to respond quickly to prevent the spread of misinformation or misunderstanding.

Be a Trusted Knowledge Source

Members already place a high value on the information they receive from their associations, but in an environment where content of unknown quality surfaces from all corners of the internet, the value of associations as content creators may grow. The action brief A Shifting Environment for Content suggests that associations can build trust by providing reliable data and authoritative viewpoints on their industry, especially if personalization technology is adopted to better connect members with the information they need.

Similarly, the Declining Trust action brief forecasts that as people become frustrated by targeted marketing and increasingly partisan media outlets, they will seek out trusted sources of information. Associations can meet that need for the broader public, particularly by translating their members’ expertise and serving as curators of information related to the profession or industry they serve.

Protect the Public Trust in Your Members

Associations continue to serve as a representative voice for their members, acting as an intermediary between their members and society and between their members and government. To ensure that this voice is seen as credible, the Declining Trust action brief recommends that leaders carefully monitor the public perception of their members and the profession or industry they serve through public opinion surveys or trust barometers. Defining consequences for ethical violations is key to maintaining reputation and credibility: Censuring an errant member will demonstrate the organization’s ethics to the member community and the public.

Many association professionals already engage in activities that will prepare their organizations and their members for the challenges ahead. Whatever may come next, association leaders will need to rely on their capacity to advocate for their members, communicate with clarity and transparency both to and on behalf of members, and disseminate and curate credible information.