• Becoming a Socially Responsible Organization: Sustainability Practices You Can Begin to Use Today

    Everyone’s talking about climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and social equity. Where can an association begin the journey to becoming a socially responsible organization?  

    Climate change, rising inequality and the pandemic, plus the increasingly widespread recognition of systemic racism, are rapidly changing the operating context for associations and their members. These challenges are creating new risks and expectations for organizations and those who run them. They are creating opportunities too. It can be difficult to keep abreast of the changing landscape and, frankly, to know what to do to become a socially responsible organization!

    Thankfully, there are resources available to help associations address these new social and environmental imperatives.

    The Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) and 58 other associations participated in the first national benchmark survey of the sustainability practices of Canadian associations. It was conducted in the summer of 2021. This is a useful tool to compare your association’s approach and to derive insights to help you on your social responsibility path.

    Association sustainability practices: Benchmarking survey results

    Here are some of the findings of the national benchmark survey of the sustainability practices of Canadian associations.

    Most associations use the language of sustainability or ESG (short for environment, social and governance) to describe their approach to addressing social and environmental practices among their membership.

    The chief reasons associations develop sustainability programs:

    • demonstrate leadership
    • maintain relevance
    • build positive stakeholder relations
    • help build member resilience by equipping them to anticipate and manage the social and environmental risks and opportunities they face.

    Associations planning to become socially responsible organizations

    The association benchmarking survey revealed the following two priorities for associations in 2022:

    1. Incorporate ESG into association strategic plans (half already do)
    2. Educate members on ESG (over half already do)

    Associations tend to focus on two social and two environmental issues in Canada:

    • equity, diversity, and inclusion
    • Indigenous relations
    • adaptation to climate change
    • transition to the low-carbon economy.

    In fact, many associations are setting up internally to support their members on these issues. Nearly half have staff with designated ESG responsibility.

    Association sustainability framework

    Most associations are well on their way to having best practices and programs to help their members improve their social and environmental impacts. They demonstrate many of the foundational practices and some of the advanced practices of the framework below, based on Canadian association sustainability programs. (See seven Canadian Association Case Studies of Sustainability Programs.)

    Associations can follow the association sustainability framework as a roadmap to put their organizations and memberships on a sustainable path. The framework uses the language of ESG and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a set of global goals endorsed by every country in the world to ensure a viable future for humanity.

    The inner circle in the diagram below points to foundational practices and the outer circle sets the course for advanced practices. Together, they present the range of practices Canadian associations are already following to demonstrate the leadership of their sector/profession, to maintain their relevance and to help their members navigate the social and environmental challenges ahead.

    More details on this framework can be found in the Sustainable and Just Association report, commissioned by the Canadian government and released in March 2021.

    Global interest in social responsibility and sustainability programs

    The global association community is grappling with its role in addressing social and environmental trends affecting its sectors and professions. Boardroom, a global platform for associations seeking to improve their practices, posted an article which was among its most viewed publications in the series “Building Back Better”. The Social Purpose of Associations: A call to action to serve the greater good clearly struck a chord with association leaders around the world.

    The article digs into the existential question of why associations exist. It argues that one reason for associations to exist is to improve society and help their members improve society. It profiles two Canadian associations leading the way on the global stage. In Canada, many associations have a societal/social purpose or mission as the reason their association, sector or profession exists. If your association is not yet on this path, check out the article to pick up tips on how your association can develop a societal purpose.

    Socially responsible Canadian leadership

    As demonstrated by the national benchmark survey of the sustainability practices of Canadian associations, many Canadian associations are already mobilizing their organizations and memberships to contribute to a better world.

    For example, the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP), a professional body, surveyed its membership this year to establish a benchmark on where it stood on equity, diversity and inclusion of its members and, more generally, around “feels” of inclusion. CIP released its findings this October. The organization also signed onto the federal government’s 50-30 Challenge, encouraging organizations to increase board and senior management diversity, and has implemented a number of governance changes to advance the commitments made in its 2020 Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Roadmap.

    Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) is another example. CICan worked with its members to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 on their campuses. With over 670 locations across Canada, they are well positioned to help Canada transition to a net-zero economy. By leveraging their campus assets – students, training, applied research – they aim to accelerate practical win/win solutions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and also enhance Canadian competitiveness.

    According to Denise Amyot, president and CEO: “Achieving net-zero emissions will require concerted efforts across Canada and we are proud to say that colleges and institutes are committed to doing their part. Our campuses are deeply connected to so many levers of change within their communities, starting with their students, and able to enact meaningful change. By committing ourselves to achieving carbon neutrality, we believe we can accelerate action across Canada and support the energy transition necessary to transform our economy and protect our planet for the generations to come.”

    These are just two examples of association social and environmental leadership. If you are interested in the role your own association can play to accelerate progress on climate change, here’s a climate change toolkit to put your association on a good path.

    Association path for good

    The world is looking for and rewarding organizations that go beyond serving their own interests to serving society’s interests. Associations are uniquely positioned to mobilize their members to help put society on a sustainable path. Fortunately, the benchmarks, frameworks, roadmaps and case studies help us make sense of the terrain. If associations step up to the plate, they are well-positioned to hit a home run for society.

    Read more informative content targeted at associations and not-for-profit organizations on the CSAE blog.

    About the Author

    Our Partners

    Our partners are best in class companies that deliver quality products and/or services to the association sector – click below to see for yourself!