Five Questions for Professional Association Leaders to Consider

Chris Hugill

Chris Hugill

Senior Manager

Professional associations are a cornerstone of the healthcare ecosystem. In recent years, one of the most critical roles for associations is their response to the wide array of current events. In the last three years alone, associations have had to provide a response to COVID, Supreme Court decisions, public unrest related to police brutality, and climate change, to name a few.

We have observed that our professional association clients holding leadership positions are in an increasingly difficult position when contemplating how to respond to topical events. It is often the case that the Board will have strong (yet not always uniform) views about a given topic, the employee base may hold a different opinion, and the membership will voice a third set of expectations about the association’s response.

We encourage leaders to consider these five questions when deciding whether and how to respond publicly to current events:

  1. Who is our audience?
    • Audience clarity guides the leadership team’s messaging.
    • The membership audience tends to be more educated in the nuances of the topic in relation to their role or profession.
    • Broader audiences require a broader or more generic response.
    • Example: Associations that represent a medical specialty might have a detailed webinar for its members on the specifics of a legal ruling, compared to how they might respond to a news outlet’s request to be a talking head on the subject
  2. What do we want our audience to know, feel, and do[1]?
    • “Know, feel, do” is a reminder that communication should seek to say something true, whether it’s about your organization’s policies, plans, or decisions.
    • As you do that, have an intended emotional impact, which could be reassured, resolute, contemplative, happy, determined, etc.
    • Lastly, your communication should offer ideas for what your audience can do, having learned what they learned and felt what they felt. It may be as simple as “stay tuned” or “let us know your views by writing to…” In other cases, it may be a bigger ask, like getting involved with activism or contributing to a cause in some other way.
    • Example: An organization that represents pharmaceutical scientists may wish to respond to a (hypothetical) dramatic cut in FDA funding by using “know, feel, do” in the following way: “We have long advocated for a robust FDA that can act as an efficient partner to the pharmaceutical industry. The recent budget cuts to the FDA will make it more difficult to conduct trials of novel therapies, slowing the speed of progress in getting new treatments to patients who need them. We encourage members to contact their state representatives with the following questions about why this decision was made…”
  3. What is the direct connection of this event to our members?
    • Not all events require a response.
    • Put your response in the context of your membership and expertise.
    • Align your response with your mission and vision.
    • Example: The American College of Surgeons’ response to gun violence should differ from a Nursing organization, where 66% of nurses report having experienced physical or sexual violence.[2]
  4. How does the current event speak directly to our organizational mission or one of our stated core values?
    • It helps members understand the why behind the response.
    • Reinforces the validity of your participation in the discussion.
    • Provides a framing for your response.
    • Example: A membership organization that holds the elimination of healthcare disparities as a stated goal may, for instance, be more compelled to comment on studies showing differences in vaccination rates along racial or ethnic differences.
  5. What are we hearing from members about the kind of leadership they expect from us?
    • It helps an organization know its membership’s preferences
    • Guides the decision to weigh in on current events.
    • It helps all constitutes understand why you responded
    • Example: Conducting regular surveys, focus groups, or polls helps associations gauge membership preferences and guides leadership in time-pressured decision-making needed for current events.

Challenges leadership faces
Professional associations seen as leaders in their communities of practice tend to build stronger reputations and membership ranks over time. There are many ways to lead in the face of pressing topical issues that demand public commentary. Leading through consensus means messaging that seeks commonality between different groups. Leading through conviction creates bigger proponents but risks creating division. Leading through inquiry means asking the right questions to engender meaningful discussion.

However associations lead, we applaud the efforts of those in the professional association community seeking to navigate complex issues. While it is true that there are a variety of constituencies to consider, we see associations speaking with humility but a firm sense of their values and expect that members will increasingly look to associations for the leadership that is doubly needed in tumultuous times.

[1] Jeff Grimshaw and Tanya Mann of MG Strategy