Jenny Nelson is associate director, research content, at ASAE.
People look to associations for information and expertise. ASAE Research Foundation data shows that after a period of declining trust in institutions, that role is more important than ever.
While associations provide a variety of benefits to their members and the public, one of the most highly valued association functions is the provision of reliable expertise. Research for Impact Every Day, the ASAE Research Foundation’s study of the role of associations in society, found that respondents—including association professionals, members, and nonmembers of both trade and professional associations—rated associations’ role as a “trusted source of information” as their most important role in the past and present and for the future.
This recognition comes at a challenging time for knowledge-driven organizations. As society contends with deliberate mass disinformation, the proliferation of internet conspiracy theories, and rampant tossing around of phrases like “fake news,” trust in institutions has plummeted. The ASAE ForesightWorks “Declining Trust” and “Rejection of Expertise” driver-of-change action briefs offer insights and action steps for association leaders to build trust in their organization’s expertise and connect with members and the public.
To understand the value placed on association activities, Westat, one of the ASAE Research Foundation’s collaborators for the Impact Every Day study, surveyed a broad spectrum of association stakeholders. They surveyed ASAE members for the association professional perspective, as well as members and nonmembers from 24 other trade and professional associations. Those surveyed were asked to rate the importance of a diverse set of association activities in the past and present and for the future.
The role of associations in “serving as a trusted source of information” was most frequently rated as very or extremely important to respondents in the past and present and for the future.
When the data was analyzed, one activity was at the top no matter how the data was sliced. The role of associations in “serving as a trusted source of information” was most frequently rated as very or extremely important to respondents in the past and present and for the future. Among professional association respondents, this role was rated very or extremely important by 81.1 percent of respondents in the past and present, and by 93.4 percent for the future. Among trade association respondents, those numbers were 79.2 percent (past/present) and 89.1 percent (future).
It’s not surprising that association stakeholders value the role of associations as sources of information. The spawning of news sources and media outlets specifically designed to generate information in opposition to other sources has sown widespread uncertainty. According to Pew research cited by the ASAE ForesightWorks “Rejection of Expertise” action brief, 64 percent of Americans surveyed believed that fake news was causing a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.
To rise above the content fray, associations should prioritize the quality of the information they disseminate. Among its recommendations, the “Rejection of Expertise” action brief suggests sourcing and validating all shared information. Associations can expand on their role as trusted sources by helping members and others become better consumers of information through critical thinking and information literacy training. Early lessons on distinguishing fact from opinion are not always retained—a 2018 Pew study found that only 26 percent of Americans could correctly identify five out of five factual statements.
Despite current challenges, the “Declining Trust” action brief suggests that the nature of associations and the trust they have already generated can provide advantages in the future. “High trust is increasingly the upside to being seen as relatively neutral, or at least well aligned with the interests and beliefs of members,” the action brief states. Leaders can exhibit transparency, cite member expertise, and use data and other evidence to build greater trust in the information they share.