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September 09, 2008

'Why' is more important than 'what': Give association members a peek behind the curtain

I was drawn to this post about shared governance in university settings by a Google alert for my name. Apparently there is another Ben Martin is commenting on blogs. Go figure!

The post is about a certain association that advocates for, among other things, shared governance in universities, but that doesn't (according to the author) do a very good job of making the case for why they support it. In other words, the truth is not self-evident to the author. This particular blogger is hesitant to join the nonprofit organization, despite both the association's repeated attempts and his understanding of the other good and important things that this association does.

When associations go through the exercise of charting their courses (call it strategic planning or whatever), the process is often full of rich conversation and a high level of shared context. There's an unrivaled level of agreement and understanding amongst the participants about what the values are and why they're important. However, that conversation and context about values isn't easily transferred to a succinct vision and/or vision statement. So often, association vision and mission statements telegraph like divine decrees or high-falootin' platitudes, with very little attention given to answering the question "Why are these values/objectives important?"

And this is reflected in our communications. We don't give much thought or energy to explaining to our membership and the public why we advocate for the things we do. We just advocate for them, report on our successes or failures, and expect members and other constituents to understand why we're doing this, that or the other. Trouble is, most members and nonmembers don't understand why we take the positions we do, and they are frequently are on the opposite side of our positions. (For example, from my last job, I remember a Certified Public Accountant who was incensed that our association was advocating for a financial literacy component to the state's educational curriculum -- the teachers already have too much to cover, he argued)

Fortunately, if you spend even just a little time explaining why decisions were made to support anything, people will accept and even respect the decision, even if they don't agree with it. Here are some ways you can do it:

  • Publish articles explaining the benefits of the things for which your association advocates. For best effect, this should be accompanied by objective research and stories supporting your assertions.
  • After it's completed, write about the decision making process. Not just minutes: Ask members or staff to recount the process of arriving at the conclusion to oppose this or support that. Understanding why the decision was made is very enlightening and is often enough to overcome objections.
  • Give members a peek behind the curtain by writing about the decision making process while it is in progress, inviting their input and feedback. A blog is an easy and effective way to do this.
  • Continually communicate about why your organization holds certain values and demonstrate why your values need to be advanced or defended. Tell stories about what happens when your values are upheld and what happens when they fall.
I'm sure there are others. Put simply: Don't just assume your constituents understand why your organization values what it values.

Tagged: ; ; ;


Peggy Hoffman said...

Love the suggestions for sharing the conversation behind the decision. Just spent some time talking with an assn exec frustrated about complaints and as we talked I suggested that the real complaint was the lack of transparency in the decision process.

Ben Martin, CAE said...

Peggy, it's amazing how negative attitudes are reversed when people understand the rationale behind decisions.