Why these things matter

Get involvedChances are that if you are reading this, you consider yourself an association professional and you appreciate the tremendous good that associations do for society. You are probably also concerned about some of the issues impacting associations, and maybe even support advocacy by groups like ASAE to address them.

But do you ever involve the boards and membership of your own association in these matters?  Probably you consider these issues too much “inside association baseball” for that.

But wait a minute.  If your association’s ability to interact with the agency that regulates your members were curtailed, wouldn’t that have an impact on your association’s ability to meet your members’ needs? If the net dollars your association has to spend on association programs were reduced by taxation, wouldn’t that impact the level of service you deliver to your members?

Recognition of the positive impact that associations have upon society and what constitutes the appropriate level of taxation and regulation upon their activities matters to more than just association professionals.  They matter — or at least they should — to your association’s membership, too.

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary, here.

The myth about ‘special interests’

Much of the public thinks of associations as “special interests” who do nothing but lobby the system to game advantage (even though U. S. government data shows that associations spend many times more on educational activities than on lobbying).

In my opinion, “special interest” is a pejorative only when applied to a group whose interests we don’t share. No. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we are, each of us, members of dozens of special interests, based on our jobs, the communities we live in, the needs of our families, our beliefs and our passions.

And when individuals with a shared interest come together to advance their own cause in a way that also serves society, it is a thing of beauty.  It is perhaps ironic that a quintessentially Washington evening in celebration of “special interests” did such a powerful job reminding us of that fact.

Read my latest commentary in AssociationTRENDS to learn why I think it so important for events like ASAE’s 13th annual Summit Awards Dinner last week to showcase how much good associations do.

The myth about ‘special interests’

Looking into the congressional crystal ball

Associations have garnered their share of attention from the Hill in the last year, but no one expected a thoroughly gridlocked Congress to actually get anything done about it … at least until after the election.  And after that?   Read my latest commentary in AssociationTRENDS to learn why I don’t think any of the association issues already in play will be the headline legislative issues for associations in the year ahead.

Looking into the congressional crystal ball

GSA, optics, over reactions and glass houses

I didn’t exactly go through the five stages of grief when the public furor over the GSA Las Vegas retreat first erupted in the media. But I did go through something like that process.

Stage one is denial: I am a “benefit of the doubt” kind of guy. If there is an innocent interpretation, I will go there first, rather than buy in to the most damning explanation.

I don’t know all the details, and I am sure at least some of the outrage was justified. But I am equally sure some of it was unfair. A friend of mine in the association field, who ought to know better, was offended that “tax dollars went to putting up GSA staff in a luxury suite.” Now, I don’t know for sure, but it is a safe bet the GSA didn’t actually pay anything like the retail rate for that suite. It was certainly deeply discounted, if not actually comped as part of the total meeting package. And just possibly the group actually saved money by hosting social activities in that space rather than renting a separate venue.

Then came stage two, anger, as it became clear that even if things weren’t as utterly reprehensible as the press coverage and righteous indignation wanted to paint them, this was bad. In this sound bite and visual image driven world, the facts don’t matter. The GSA’s choices couldn’t be explained away, even if all the facts were on their side (and I seriously doubt that is the case). The whole thing just looked bad, and once you are forced to explain yourself, you’ve already lost the battle[1].

The congressional overreaction was equally predictable and anger inducing Over broad “solutions” (which no one on the Hill is willing to take credit for authoring and which were unanimously approved by legislators who didn’t even bother to read them) will create problems where none existed before and won’t fix the problem that stirred a thoroughly gridlocked Congress to actually take action in the first place.

Bargaining is stage three. The formal legislative response being spearheaded by ASAE is appropriate, sound and absolutely vital to the association community. It deserves all of our support. We need to defend our meetings from being unfairly painted with the broad brush of scarlet that the mainstream media and Congress are applying to all meeting events. We need to roll back the asinine restrictions that will hamstring even the purest of pure, publicly beneficial educational, development, networking and information exchange events.

Stage four, depression, follows. The occasional bad actor’s black eye is a cross we all are going to have to bear. For a long time. And it is going to be hard to defend the defensible without sounding like we are making excuses for the indefensible.

Where I part with the classical Kübler-Ross model is stage five: acceptance. I am not prepared to do that.

But now that the initial furor has begun to die down, I feel safe offering a word of warning.

Don’t let your justifiable outrage over how unfair and misguided the press coverage and legislative response to “GSA-Gate” was lull you into a false sense of complacency or moral superiority. Let’s be honest: this wound was self-inflicted. Albeit, inflicted by one organization’s meeting, But nonetheless self-inflicted. And all of us who do meetings take a hit when one meeting’s atrocious optics capture headlines.

And as long as we’re being honest, let’s take a good hard look at our own meetings.

Sometimes what looks like a boondoggle is just that. A boondoggle.

We need to be absolutely above reproach in how we structure and promote our meetings. That means living up in full to the claims we make about them. Do they truly match the brochure’s promise to deliver real value, regardless of who is footing the bill? Do they actually serve our particular, parochial interests in a manner that also advances the public interest?

And how would they look if they showed up on YouTube?

[1] In my more than thirty-years in the profession I have never spent a dime of my association’s money for first class travel. But I travel enough that I occasionally score a free upgrade. Ever try to explain that when the chairman of the board trudges past you in first on his way to a middle seat in coach?

The Generation Gap in Lobbying

There is a generation gap between lobbyists and the lobbied that requires rethinking established GR tactics.  Read my commentary from this week’s Association Trends.

Review Gate

Give the Metropolitan Opera credit. When its leadership screws up, they do it on a truly operatic scale.

The Met is a nonprofit, structured in a manner not unlike many associations. There is the parent organization, the opera company, that delivers the core value to its membership (audience).  And there is its educational foundation, the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The Guild engages in a number of activities in support of the parent, not the least of which is to publish the magazine with the widest circulation in the opera field, Opera News. A substantial part of each issue of the magazine is made up of reviews of opera productions from around the world.

On Monday, May 21st, in response to the sometimes negative reviews of the company’s own productions in the pages of the magazine, the Met announced that Opera News would stop reviewing the Met.  In an interview with the New York Times, Met general manager Peter Gelb indicated that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication “passing judgment” on the institution with its negative critiques of the house’s productions.

The reaction was immediate and predictable.  Some of the reaction was overwrought. Charges of censorship were made, which is hyperbole. The Met management, as the owner and publisher, has every right to decide what it will and will not publish in its own magazine. No one has a constitutional right to have what they want published in “their” association’s magazine.

But the censorship accusation also misses the point. The Met had every right to do what they did. It was just monumentally stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Forget whether you agree or disagree with the assessments of the artistic merits of the Met productions that appeared in the pages of Opera News: Does a gag order on any content independent of the management’s preferred narrative increase or decrease the credibility of the journal?

Does making the house organ nothing more than an outlet for sales hype and self-promotion make it more or less likely that the journal will actually be read?

And the irony of the Met’s action was that it was a huge overreaction, too. The criticism of Met productions in the pages of Opera News was far milder than the criticism carried elsewhere.

Transparency isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) an imposed obligation.  It is the organization’s best defense against mischaracterizations of its actions and intentions. Transparency does expose you to criticism. But it also creates an environment where the facts are allowed to speak for themselves and there is an opportunity for open discussion.  Both your supporters and your detractors can weigh in and the lurkers following but not participating in the debate can decide for themselves. There is no guarantee that judgment will be reasonable or fair, but it maximizes the potential that the verdict will be informed.

Some in the opera world have serious doubts about Gelb’s capabilities as an operatic producer, but he is an undisputed master of marketing and PR. Which makes this monumental act of hubris all the more surprising. How could he miss the atrocious optics created by the action?  Could there be a clearer way to send the message that the organization feels it knows better than its audience (membership) what is good for them?  And that it doesn’t care what its audience (membership) wants from an organization that exists to serve its needs and is dependent upon its support for that very existence?

To the Met’s credit, its response to this gaffe was equally swift and bold. Within less than 24 hours, the Met voided its ill-considered move. (Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall for that board meeting?) And they did so in a clear and unequivocal manner.


No attempt to rationalize or justify or downplay the mistake. They just fixed it.

Every association has to struggle with the balance between credibility and leveraging the advocacy potential of the communications outlets it controls (its journals, publications and website).

Every association would do well to go to school on the case study provided by the Met.

Stay focused on mission

The new president of the national, not-for-profit organization urged his membership to remember: “The [organization] we passionately love is hardly some cumbersome, outmoded club of sticklers, with a medieval bureaucracy, silly … rules on fancy letterhead, one more movement rife with squabbles, opinions and disagreement.” No. All those elements might exist, or be perceived to exist within our boards, our membership structures and our collective actions. But your association — any association — exists for some other reason. Some higher purpose.

Do we allow ourselves to be distracted by process or diverted into passionate disputes over secondary matters? It is the fastest path toward driving off members and losing relevance.

Or do we stay focussed on mission, the shared aspirations that transcend structure, process and individual differences? When faced with the immediate, the urgent, do we keep that larger purpose in mind?

The speaker I quote is Archbishop Timothy Dolan, presiding at his first meeting as president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It would certainly be pretentious and foolish to elevate our professional or trade group to the status of a church or consider our association a religion. But the reminder to keep first things first is certainly relevant.

Have we lost the ability to argue?

“It is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. That is why there are so many quarrels breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end.”  How true.  Just switch on any cable TV “news” show or go to any online forum.  Or visit an association board meeting.

Unfortunately, the quoted obsertvation is not new.  It was made almost a century ago (1929 to be exact), by British author G. K. Chesterton.

“Today, we tend to think of arguing as synonymous with quarreling, with anger as the chief ingredient,” a January-February 2008 editorial in the Gilbert Magazine noted.  But true argument has nothing to do with anger.  Unless you are in a debating contest, the purpose of argument isn’t to beat your opponent; it is to get to the truth.

There is the tricky part!  If argument is in service of the truth, not personal victory, that demands being open to the possibility that the opposition might be right. Which requires also being open to the possibility that one’s own sincere and intensely held beliefs might be wrong.  Or at least incomplete.

“Participants in a discussion who are unwilling to listen are not having an argument.  They are having a fruitless exchange of assertions.”

As Chesterton himself liked to point out, true argument is only possible when the participants share more in common than they differ over.  That is, as he often observed, we have to agree about something before we can argue about anything.  Otherwise, we are just disagreeing for the purpose of being disagreeable.  Or merely to appear clever.

We’ve all seen (or perhaps been in) arguments where the protagonists seem to be talking past each other.  Think of the current political debates on the debt ceiling.  The opposing sides agree it is important, even vital that something be done. But somehow, they end up arguing about whether taxes are too high or government spending too wasteful.  It becomes more important to be viewed as right about taxes or right about spending.  They forget that the energy behind the argument had it roots in something important that they both agree about: the need to avoid default.

So maybe the real reason we tend to argue is because we care so deeply and the subject matters are of such importance.  That’s a good reason to argue, Chesterton would assert.  But it doesn’t excuse you of the obligation to argue fairly and argue well, argue with respect for your opponent, and argue in service of the truth.


I recently suffered a very sudden and very significant loss of vision.  Happily, the condition was fully correctible. Nonetheless, during the period of impairment I learned some very interesting things about how the brain works and we perceive the world.

I discovered that when I was in familiar surroundings, my brain could reach back to stored memories of how things were supposed to look.  In the familiar confines of my office or home, I hardly noticed the lack of clarity in my vision.  My brain was able to easily recognize the settings and the people I encountered and adjusted things to make it feel like I could see better than I actually did.

When I went on a period of extended travel, however, and found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, the visual impairment felt like it became more severe.  Everything was a total blur.  I felt disoriented and at a loss. 

Scientists talk about the concept of paradigms: the frame of reference that causes the human brain to routinely “fill in the blanks” and add information to what we are actually, sensually perceiving.  When that additional information is accurate, it actually improves our grasp of reality, as was the case when I was navigating my office and home with my fading eyesight. 

But sometimes the information that our governing paradigms add to our perceptive abilities can be misleading.  We can essentially see what we are expecting to see, not what is actually before us. 

And paradigms don’t just have the power to change — and distort — visual perceptions. I have seen paradigms at work within human interactions as well.    

When that happens, at a board meeting, or a staff meeting, or a legislative meeting, it can start an argument where there is no disagreement.  The conversation never gets to the available, mutually beneficial solution because the parties are too distracted arguing over perceived differences that exist only in their conflicting paradigms.

Or, put another way, if we remain at loggerheads, locked inflexibly into opposing positions even where there is no real impediment to a satisfactory solution, we will never get to a position of strength, from which we can successfully negotiate an acceptable outcome on the issues that truly do matter to us. 

Sometimes, you just have to let go of your paradigm.

Inquiry or advocacy?

There are two kinds of public policy research:  there is inquiry and there is  advocacy.  In the case of advocacy, you start with an answer and go in search of the facts that will bolster and support your position.  In the case of inquiry, you start with a question and let the facts lead you where they may.

It is important to understand the difference.  I have seen too many cases where association lobbying efforts have gone horribly wrong because someone got so excited about the case it was possible to make for their desired outcome by carefully selecting their facts that they ignored even the most obvious data that could be used against it.  And their beautiful, fact-based strategy collapsed the first time it was challenged.

Effective association advocacy requires both forms of research.  Before the association begins to craft its legislative or regulatory strategy, it needs a good, clear headed and pragmatic understanding of what the facts of the situation actually are.  It is like the intelligence gathering that gets done before you plan a military campaign.  Just because naval warfare is your particular strength, you can’t start planning a water-based assault on your enemy without first checking into whether key targets are accessible by water.

If the inquiry is open and honest, you sometimes learn something unpleasant that you won’t like hearing.  But that can be even more important than getting the answer you wanted.  If naval warfare is your particular strength, but the rivers are too shallow for your ships, that is a setback.  But you’re better off knowing it before you’ve committed your navy.

Sometimes the research merely confirms what you already knew.  Understandably, that kind of research often gets criticized by members as a waste of time and resources.  But if the stakes are high enough, if the issue is of life and death importance, it doesn’t hurt to verify and confirm the reliability of the assumptions you are betting the industry’s future on.  To further torture the naval warfare metaphor, it might be “obvious” that the city you need to capture is accessible by the river. “We don’t need some high price mapmaker to point that out.”  But before putting your military personnel’s lives on the line, it would be nice to know for sure and to have maps with the river depths precisely charted for your ships to follow.

Both forms of research require intellectual honesty.  Spinning the facts to serve your purpose to such an extent that you distort reality is not an example of either inquiry or advocacy research.  In fact, it isn’t even research at all.  It is
dishonest salesmanship masquerading as research.  And the only mark you are duping with the deceptive sales pitch is yourself.