Why do associations exist? Why should we care?

Blog post was written by Coro Strandberg, Social Purpose Advisor, Social Purpose Institute.
Oct 15, 2021

In the past, associations existed to serve the interests of their members, acting as the public voice, and building excellence in their sector or profession.  But today there is a new breed of association serving society and the greater public good: the social purpose association. This is an essential pivot if society wants long-term well-being for all within planetary limits.

Until now, associations and their members sustained the old economy, an economy which has resulted in social and environmental indicators spiraling down. There is widespread consensus that we need an economy that is inclusive, decolonized, decarbonized, and circular – and associations have a central role to play to accelerate this transition, and to ensure no one is left behind. If associations don’t move in this direction and bring their members with them, it is hard to imagine a sustainable future for society.

In steps the Social Purpose Association.

A social purpose association is one whose raison d’être is to create a better world. It is a positive force in society. Its social purpose North Star sets out why the association exists and the greater good to which it aspires. In such an association, social purpose goes beyond the mission statement (what it does or how it does it), and vision (where it is headed). It is the association’s quest, its enduring reason for being, forever pursued. A social purpose association serves society, in addition to serving its members. Its social purpose answers these questions:

  • What is the greater role the association plays in the region, country, or world?
  • What is the societal or humanitarian benefit of its sector or profession?

Fortunately, associations don’t have to be in the dark when it comes to developing and implementing their social purpose. Association leaders can use this Social Purpose Association Benchmarking Tool, designed to help them accelerate their societal ambitions.

Many associations are already moving in this direction, as revealed in this recent survey of 59 Canadian associations. As seen in the graph below, over 40 per cent already have a societal or social purpose as the reason their association, sector and profession exists.

These two Canadian associations are guided by a social purpose:

Associations that go this route gain the following benefits:

Enhance relevance with members, stakeholders, and societyCreate a future-fit organization and profession / sectorAddress expectations of investors, customers, and employees
Build public trust of sector / professionAttract and engage members; leverage reach and influenceDemonstrate leadership; raise association brand and profile

An authentic social purpose association not only adopts that purpose, it uses the purpose to inform its strategy, culture, decisions, and partnerships. Doing so ensures the social purpose is not just a slogan or tagline. The Social Purpose Association Benchmarking Tool provides key insights on this journey.

Given the trend for companies to adopt a social purpose as their reason for existing and acting, more and more associations are expected to go this route. Indeed, one association, Water UK, recognized the need for a new social contract for itself and its members. It found it in its research that industry customers made clear that “they expect us to do more – not just to improve services, but also to play a full role in tackling wider social and environmental challenges”. Water UK thus embraced a commitment to help their members enshrine the public interest within their business purpose. Doing so will not only put the industry on a sustainable path but also will benefit people and wildlife.

Why do associations exist? Why should we care? More and more associations will exist to accelerate the transition to the new economy, which is inclusive, low-carbon and circular. This new social contract – as set out in the Social Purpose Association Benchmarking Tool – lays the foundation to reimagine an economy that serves people and planet.

Join the virtual Propelling Purpose Summit on November 17-18, 2021, to be part of a discussion on the Social Purpose Association. Here’s a code to access a 15 per cent discount: SP-21. Feel free to pass it on.

Recommended Posts