Coro Strandberg, president of Strandberg Consulting
When I started working to help businesses become more socially responsible, it was 30 years ago and I was a pioneer in the realm. That’s when I started seeing that businesses could be a force for good—could have not only a beneficial financial or economic impact, but a positive social and environmental impact as well.
But about 15 years ago, I started realizing that supporting one business at a time to become a positive force in the world was insufficient. Put simply, no organization can become sustainable all on its own. To advance their sustainability visions or goals and overcome their barriers, they’d have to collaborate with partners. And to help put society on a track for a thriving future and planet, whole sectors and professions needed to be put to work, not individual organizations working on their own.
That’s when I became particularly interested in working with associations. Associations are the specialists of their sector or profession—and they can mobilize their memberships to advance along the sustainability path together. I set out to investigate what role associations could play to help their members in the sustainability space.
Association Members Expect Sustainability Guidance
First, it’s becoming increasingly imperative for all organizations to address their social and environmental performance. When I started out, back in the 1990s, there was no business case for this. Now, longitudinal research and academic studies clearly demonstrate the case. So groups must investigate ways to do it, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but for the bottom line. Think customer attraction, innovation, market opportunities, operating cost savings, and risk management. Further, it attracts partners, investors, and talent.
Building a sustainability strategy is critical for associations, which always have to make sure that they’ve got the value proposition that will attract and retain their own talent. They need to be relevant to governments. They need to be relevant to the sector or the profession. And they need to be relevant to society.
By not addressing these issues, associations are at risk of being sidelined in the conversations that are underway at influential tables, where organizations are starting to create a roadmap to an inclusive, low-carbon, circular, purpose-driven, equitable future. Failing to prioritize issues of environmental, social and governance (ESG) means not representing the interests of members.
Members need to know what their ESG risks are and they need help from the association to identify and manage them. Membership is expecting to learn from their associations what the critical issues are that they should be dealing with.
If associations are not the platform for this innovation and this risk management, their members will go somewhere else to get support. They’ll find another organization that is better informed and they’ll take their money to those groups. This is what we see happening and the trend is only going to accelerate. So associations must see this as being part of their mandate.
The good news is that we see associations already making strides—so it’s not about starting from zero. It’s about finding out what practices already exist, sharing these practices, and then creating a roadmap to help associations evolve and improve year over year.
Associations “Hold the Key” to a Thriving Future
In my early career, I was helping business leaders advance ESG and sustainability goals, and what’s being called for now is associations to implement these strategies too, with metrics and targets and visionary goals.
The potential in the future is for associations to do what businesses are doing now, which is to have “serving society” as a reason to exist. As more and more businesses are defining their roles by the ways they contribute to making a better world, the opportunity exists for more associations to adopt a social purpose, to better serve their members and society as well. That’s a shift in perspective.
If we can imagine a future where associations and their members help serve society, that’s the route to a thriving future. Associations are critical, fundamental, and primary. They hold the key to a sustainable future and if they could unlock the door of their members to move forward on sustainability then we have a fighting chance for a flourishing future for all.
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