Are Associations Losing Their Members’ Trust?—The Leadership ColLAB Explores This Critical Question

If your membership numbers are marching into the red, you and your team are probably focused on trying to identify the cause of the bleeding.

Is technology tying your audience in knots? Perhaps it’s content that’s missing the mark. Maybe stale programming is stopping the love? Something flashier might be needed to attract the coveted gaze of strenuously courted GenX.

What if the usual suspects are not to blame? The problem might be something you’ve never considered.

Could the issue be trust? Is it possible that your community has doubts about the organization’s credibility?  

Trust isn’t a challenge that is currently top of mind for association leaders. But at .orgCommunity we like to explore issues before they become sound bites.

The Leadership ColLAB conference was an opportunity to bring professionals together around what we believe is a critical question. The event, which was exclusive to .orgCommunity VIP members, took place on March 2 at the Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights. We structured this conference based on feedback from .orgCommunity’s fall Solutions Day participants. Our goal was to provide a great forum for networking and meaningful conversations.

Trust and Culture

Nancy MacRae, MS, CEO, ENA describes the connection between culture and trust.

Trust and culture are deeply intertwined. We asked Nancy MacRae, MS, CEO of the Emergency Nurses Association, to help us frame this conversation by sharing her group’s commitment to that idea. From the beginning of her tenure at ENA, Nancy has made building a positive culture a priority.

“As you create a strong culture, you also gain trust,” Nancy advised. ENA developed its culture statements based on—People, Purpose, and Partnerships, the organization’s 3Ps. All of the association’s activities and initiatives are grounded in the ideals that are outlined below.

ENA Culture Statements

Staff

The Emergency Nurses Association will seek at all times to foster and maintain a culture of excellence, commitment, empowerment, collaboration, inclusivity, and accountability.

Board

We, the ENA Board of Directors, will seek at all times to demonstrate:

  • Excellence through collaboration, engagement, and accountability​​
  • Integrity through respect, compassion, and mindfulness
  • A culture of inquiry while being inclusive, strategic, and visionary.​​

ENA’s commitment to bring culture to life is even expressed in the organization’s physical environment. When the group reimagined their office space, incorporating elements of culture into the new design was a priority. Images of the association’s founders, history, and current activities are displayed throughout the facility, and spaces were created to accommodate a variety of work styles.

Nancy emphasized one important idea that we don’t consider often enough. Working on culture isn’t a finite activity. You need to constantly evaluate the data and analyze progress.

ENA brings objectivity to the process by using the net promoter score as a tool to measure success. This metric is created by asking your constituents one simple question: “On a scale from 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this product/company to a friend or colleague?” 

ENA’s culture journey brought the group from a score of minus one in 2017 to a score of 40.5 in 2022! To calculate the NPS subtract the percentage of customers who answer the NPS question with a 6 or lower (known as “detractors”) from the percentage of customers who answer with a 9 or 10 (known as “promoters.” Respondents who answer 7 or 8 are known as “passives” and are not included in the calculation).

Nancy prepared us to explore trust with these takeaways about culture:

  • Begin with vision​
  • Find your partners​
  • Live your culture daily! ​
  • Tear down walls (literally and figuratively)​
  • Embrace a continuous process​

The Erosion of Confidence

Sharon Rice, .orgSource Managing Director of Business Strategy, is our resident trend watcher. She is a futurist and avid consumer of the latest research, data, and provocative insights from industry thought leaders. Sharon has been following the dialogue around trust for some time and was eager to discover the group’s thoughts on this topic.

Sharon Rice, Managing Director Business Strategy, .orgSource chats with me and Brian Willard, Director of Information Technology, CCIM Institute

If you track current events, Sharon advised, you are aware of the erosion of public confidence across a spectrum of institutions. The police, healthcare organizations, religious groups, financial institutions, and news outlets are all subject to greater scrutiny and skepticism. Even the Supreme Court has come under fire.

Adding to the impact, multiple disruptive social and cultural events have characterized the formative working years for younger generations. Experiences like the following make Millennials and GenX, groups that associations are seeking to engage, consider even long-standing organizations with a dose of suspicion. 

  • September 11
  • The 2008 mortgage crisis
  • The Great Recession
  • The 2016 Election
  • The COVID pandemic
  • The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tyre Nichols
  • January 6
  • The current inflationary economy

This lowering of esteem for organizations, whose solid reputations were previously taken for granted, is not anecdotal. Sharon notes that 50-year longitudinal studies from Gallop Poll, NORC’s General Social Survey, Harris Poll, and Edelman Barometer, find that trust in public institutions and their leaders has declined steadily.

More specifically–    

  • Trust in the US government is at a historic low (Pew Research)
  • One out of two respondents view the government as a divisive force in society (Edelman Trust Barometer)
  • Only 56% of Americans trust nonprofit organizations (2021 survey conducted by Independent Sector.)

That last statistic should make us all take notice. Sharon observed that a decline in confidence surrounding nonprofits can be traced back to 1995 when United Way CEO, William Aramony, was convicted of fraud and financial mismanagement.

The World Café Format

To maximize the brain power of our .orgCommunity professionals and to allow for a robust exchange of ideas, Sharon facilitated this conversation in a World Café format.

The World Café is a strategy designed to deeply explore a series of topical questions. Participants were divided into about seven tables of eight to 10 people. Groups discussed the same question simultaneously. We switched tables to address each of the three questions. We considered the following issues, which moved from broad to specific.

  • Do our members and stakeholders view our association as legitimate?
  • Could the decline in membership be a reflection of the decline in trust?
  • How can we restore trust in our work, our organizations, and our leaders?

Sharon is summarizing the notes from all the CoLAB conversations. Her recap will be available in the next few weeks. Until then, these are some of my impressions based on the three conversations I was part of.

  • Trust was not a concern for most participants in the past. But there was agreement that membership retention and loyalty problems might be symptomatic of declining confidence.
  • Today trust bleeds into everything. No organization can take its constituents for granted.
  • Associations revolve around relationships, but the shape of those connections has changed.
  • The association value proposition should be revised to meet the moment. People don’t necessarily join to be part of a tribe.
  • It is still possible to create that community, but on a smaller scale. People want short-term opportunities they can easily opt into and out of.
  • Trust is tied to value. People trust organizations that deliver what they promise.
  • Intention, transparency, good communication, and relevance are needed to maintain or restore trust.

Stay tuned for Sharon’s analysis of the dialogue.

The Pandemic’s Impact

We followed this exciting brainstorming with a conversation that highlighted how two very different front-line organizations navigated the pandemic minefield and delivered outstanding services and support to their members.

Sharon facilitated an exchange of ideas between Nancy MacRae and Kristine Hillmer, MBA, CAE, President, and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. The panel discussed how those groups supported their members through unprecedented challenges, gained public trust, and came back wiser and stronger.

This was a fascinating conversation, and I’ll be sharing the highlights in my next post.

To round out the day we offered tabletop discussions around these special interest topics:

  • Culture with Kevin Martlage, Senior Consultant, .orgSource 
  • Strategy with Sharon Rice, Managing Director, Business Strategy, .orgSource 
  • Technology with Patrick Dorsey, Executive Vice President, Marketing, Impexium 
  • Marketing and the Web with Jane Pearson, Vice President, Marketing and Communications Service, .orgSource
  • Digital Engagement with Jeff Baker, Association Solutions, WorkerBee.TV 
  • Membership with Kevin Ordonez, President and Managing Director Digital Strategy, .orgSource
  • New Business Models with Michelle Czosek, Consultant, .orgSource 

The Leadership ColLAB lived up to its name. The event was what the association community does best. We used the power of collaboration to share ideas that make us effective leaders who members trust to deliver on promises and build a successful future.

Thanks to our partners and speakers who made this day a great success. Impexium: Association Management SolutionsWorkerBee.TV, Community Brands, Emergency Nurses Association, Wisconsin Restaurant Association

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