When to Make a Statement

Leaders are under more pressure to speak out on hot topics. The right response is a function of a good plan—and some organizational awareness.

The current news cycle is stressful for a lot of associations—at least two major global conflicts, an election year, plus anxiety over immigration, the economy, and more. Even if you as a leader don’t see the need to weigh in on today’s hot topic, there’s a good chance a substantive group of members or other stakeholders do want to see you speak out. 

But even if you decide it’s worth making a statement, there’s the question of what the content of the statement should be, and who’s involved in crafting it. Managed poorly, the process can create severe divisions within your association—I know of at least one small association nearly cratered over this situation. In the current moment, an action plan is essential.

What’s important is to craft a deliberate strategy instead of falling into one by default.

–Seth Chalmer

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Leading Edge’s Seth Chalmer lays out some of the do’s and don’ts around these discussions. First, and most essential, is to avoid being reactive—to put out a statement just for the sake of doing one, or because a vocal group within your association is pressing you to. “What’s important is to craft a deliberate strategy instead of falling into one by default,” he writes. “Jumping directly from ‘seeing big news’ to ‘drafting a statement’ is a common way to fall into this trap; statements and other tactics should be downstream of a smart and explicit strategy.”

So what does that smart and explicit strategy look like? It begins, Chalmer suggests, with an acknowledgment that every organization has what he calls a “tolerance range”—acts and behaviors that it’s willing to abide, or not. “Tolerance range has an external aspect—whom do we platform, whom do we serve, with whom do we partner, whose donations do we accept—and an internal aspect—what kinds of speech or actions by team members, board members, or vendors do our policies tolerate,” he explains.

That’s a useful rubric for determining where your organization stands generally, though it doesn’t necessarily help you figure when to speak out. For that, clarity about your organization’s role—and awareness of who’s affected by your statements—is important. Earlier this year, I wrote on this topic for an Associations Now Deep Dive, where ASIS International CEO Peter O’Neil highlighted the potential for statements to backfire—appeasing one vocal group can often result in just alienating another. “If we’re going to be prepared to make a comment about race-related matters in one country or one region, we’d better be prepared to make them about race-related matters in other regions,” he said.

That doesn’t mean you should do nothing around hot-button issues. But there’s work to do; even if the ultimate decision is to keep silent, it’s worth the effort to determine how an issue fits with both your mission and your tolerance level. ASAE research suggests that most associations decide to speak out when “there’s a risk to the association or field” (77 percent) or “when stakeholders are impacted” (73 percent); less important is leaders’ passion about the topic (30 percent) or staff impact (23 percent).

That can change—O’Neil notes that a strategy is a guide that can shift depending on the issue. But it’s worth having an open conversation about what issues are most important to the association, and when it makes sense to speak out about them. Because the issues aren’t going away.

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