Navigating the Decision to Take a Stand on Social Issues: Insights from Australian Association Executives

10 Oct 2023 9:35 AM | Sarah Gamble (Administrator)

Associations have a vital role in shaping public opinion and influencing societal change. However, the choice to take a stance on social issues isn't always straightforward. In light of the current Australian referendum, this has become a concern for many association executives.

To contribute to this dialogue, the September 2023 Associations Matter Monthly Polll examined how association executives in Australia evaluate and respond to social issues, along with the factors that drive their decisions to speak out.

Formal Decision-Making Processes
Surprisingly, more than half of the associations (55%) surveyed do not have a formal process or protocol in place for deciding whether to take a position on social issues. Only 27% have established a formal process, while 6% are in the process of developing one.

Nevertheless, associations do follow various protocols when tackling this conundrum. These typically involve senior leadership discussions, CEO briefings, and board evaluations and approvals. Some organisations mention involving committees or advisory groups, while others rely on their association's Code of Conduct.

Regardless of the method, most associations contemplate whether the issue aligns with their core values, objectives, and if they possess the necessary expertise to contribute meaningfully. Often, they also gauge their members' perspectives on the matter.

Alignment with Organisational Values and Goals
When deciding which social issues to comment on, more than seven in ten associations (71%) consider the issue's relevance to their mission and values. They assess how it aligns with their strategy and how applicable it is to their business and their members.

These associations also consider how it may impact their credibility and reputation. If the issue fits within their strategic framework and carries significant implications, associations may take a leadership role. Conversely, if the issue doesn't align with their goals, they may choose to remain silent or let other organisations lead the way. By aligning their positions with their values and strategic goals, associations ensure their advocacy efforts remain consistent and purpose driven.

Consideration of Expertise and Credibility
Approximately 28% of associations base their decision on an assessment of their expertise and credibility before taking a position. They evaluate whether they possess the necessary knowledge about the issue and whether their stance would carry weight.

Associations may also scrutinise their capacity to genuinely influence the issue and drive positive change. Some mention that they only comment on issues where their members have expertise, or so they can be considered credible thought leaders.

If associations have the needed expertise and credibility, they craft a plan and execute it accordingly. However, if they lack the expertise or if the issue doesn't pertain to their field, they refrain from taking a position. This approach ensures associations focus their efforts where they can have the most significant impact.

A recent example of this approach is the joint statement in support of the proposed Voice to Parliament referendum, signed by over 50 Victorian and national health organizations, including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP), and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF).

Consultation with Members
It's pleasing to note that many associations recognise the importance of engaging their members in the decision-making process. Overall, 16% of associations report that member feedback often shapes their stance on social issues, with 35% stating that member input is one of several factors considered, and an additional 28% reporting that member feedback is considered, though not always essential to the decision-making process. Only 9% of responding associations say decisions are typically made without significant member input.

When deciding whether to take a position on a social issue, many associations conduct membership polls or surveys to gather opinions and perspectives. The executive board then drafts a position statement based on the survey results, which is circulated to the board of directors for further input and amendments. Once a majority approves, the statement is shared with the members. This process ensures associations make informed decisions that resonate with the interests and values of their members.

A Policy of Non-Engagement
At the other end of the spectrum, some associations maintain a clear non-engagement policy when it comes to commenting on social issues. Several explicitly indicated they "do not comment on social issues." Their reasons vary, with some citing it's not within their remit, others pointing to their constitution prohibiting commentary on political matters, and some noting a lack of authorisation from their Board of Directors. Additionally, some associations avoid involvement because they believe that taking a position that supports some members may lead to antagonising others.

The decision to take a stance on social issues remains a multifaceted challenge for associations. To navigate this complexity, many consider the alignment of the issue with their organisational values and strategic goals, along with their expertise and credibility to make a meaningful impact. Other associations engage with their members to ensure their positions align with the broader community's values and interests.

In this dynamic landscape, associations must balance their responsibilities as advocates with their commitment to representing their members' diverse perspectives. By doing so, they can continue to play a pivotal role in shaping Australia's social discourse and contributing to meaningful societal change.

The Association Matters Monthly Poll is supported by AuSAE and conducted by Survey Matters.  The September Poll received responses from association executives across various sectors. 

Rebecca Sullivan is the Co-Founder and Research Director at Survey Matters, the only research agency in Australia exclusively focused on providing services to associations, membership and for purpose organisations.  Survey Matters provide associations and for purpose organisations with evidence-based insights that deliver change that matters.

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