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

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.


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.