Using social capital measurement as a predictor of future success or failure within your association

September 19, 2008 at 10:08 am Leave a comment

I’ve been truly blessed in my career to be able to combine a wide breadth of professional experiences with an even larger variety of teachers who I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with.  As you move along in your career journey, the combination of these elements begin to reveal patterns which illuminate potential truths that may often be overlooked by the general population.  Time-tested universal logic and wisdom becomes tools for us all to apply to our associations.  In this posting, I will share with you what I believe to be one such truth as it relates to the state of our association world.

If you ask the typical association executive how he or she might predict whether or not their association would succeed or fail in the future, chances are you might hear a seemingly canned response full of management, operations and strategic diagnostic assessment covering everything from strategic planning to long-term investment portfolios to new product/resource development to technology to membership recruitment to research to competitive educational programs to advocacy to etc to etc to etc.  I think you get the picture.  

While in many ways the above elements are certainly crucial to a healthy and functioning association, I believe the true answer, above all else, is social capital… and not just social capital, but the highest degree of social capital possible.  

Social capital has been defined by writers, such as Robert Putnam (in Bowling Alone) and Peter Block (in Community – The Structure of Belonging), as the overall quality of relationships and cohesion within a community.  

Putnam suggests that social capital is about acting on and valuing our interdependence and sense of belonging… the extent to which we extend hospitality and affection to one another.  Building on Putnam’s assessment, Peter Block suggests that “we need to create a community where each citizen has the experience of being connected to those around them and knows that their safety and success are dependent on the success of all others.”

Personally, I’ve seen the factor of social capital drive success and failure in a variety of “community” settings throughout my career, ranging from my sixth grade rock band and high school football team to the world of state/national politics and, yes, our beloved associations. 

In essence, on paper an association might give the healthy appearance of being poised for a strong and secure future only to be disintegrating from the core.  Could your association be disintegrating at the core over declining social capital? 

By now, you are likely focusing your thoughts and analysis on your various membership segments and the degree to which they may or may not feel a sense of cohesion and belonging within your association.  You may even be contemplating how well your association’s bundle of resources, opportunities and networking structure is advancing social capital at the individual and group level.  Finally, I’m almost certain that as a seasoned association executive you are wondering how you can measure, benchmark and track social capital and it’s impact on the growth, activity and success of your association.

At this point, if you’re thoughts are precisely at the same place as my thoughts above then I would heartily congratulate us all for overlooking the a significant foundation and factor for the successful cultivation of social capital within our associations… our staff. 

Yes, it is true that we are all “paid” staff and in keeping with the traditional fallacy of economic enrichment let’s celebrate for a moment the desperately flawed assumption that a clear definition of job responsibilities, adequate compensation, leave time and fringe benefits automatically assures a high degree of social capital and personal investment within our staff structure. 

Simply put, unless the heart is beating the rest of the body isn’t going very far.

It is quite possible to have the most talented and experienced group of people comprising your staff structure yet fail miserably for a lack of cohesion and sense of belonging (aka social capital) which, if unaddressed, may only worsen over time leading to decline in social capital cultivation with members/volunteer leaders and the ultimate “extinction” of staff.  Your workplace will become overly stressful, the best and brightest won’t likely stick around and those who do remain are likely the ones whose only goal within your association is to collect that paycheck. 

Think of your staff as a mirror image reflection of the social capital within your association.

Okay, so here we are.  We’ve pinpointed the source of social capital, right?  I’m afraid we’re likely wrong once again.  After all, our staff is in place to answer the marching orders of our governing boards and councils and if these volunteer member leaders fail to espouse the creation of social capital with membership and staff alike then the leadership is to blame, right?   Well, let’s not jump to hasty conclusions just yet.

Ultimately, I believe the most powerful source of social capital creation with your association is none other than you… regardless of your role or scope of responsibility.  Our volunteer leaders certainly have a great deal of authority within our associations, but remember that leaders come and go while staff remains the constant, leaving you with considerable influence.  

When we commit ourselves to living and measuring our own success by the impact we have on the success of others, the ideal environment is created all around us for the cultivation of social capital.  More broadly, I also believe you can apply this principle to any aspect of your life. 

Let’s face it, if we aren’t helping others succeed aren’t we in a way allowing them to fail?  Granted, sometimes we take great satisfaction in seeing others fail, such as anyone major league baseball team playing the Chicago Cubs (sorry, couldn’t resist); however, we are talking about the construction and maintenance of an environment of intended cohesion and belonging, not a competitive environment.  Think Chicago Cubs fans unified around the ultimate success of that elusive world series pennant, not the more general community of major league baseball fans, with the one caveat being if the day were to arrive when the future of major league baseball as a whole is threatened.  Though alliances is not intended to be part of this posting, there clearly is significance in terms of social capital well beyond our own associations that I might address at a later date.  

Nonetheless, if you characterize the conditions within your association as intensely competitive, then it may already be too late.  Think of it this way, social capital is the essence of the phrase “good-of-the-order”. 

For some reason, the primary motivation in the traditional management world is more often than not negative motivation.  In essence, we are often conditioned to believe that if we do a good job then our economic security is assured and that if we fail it may ultimately cost us our jobs.  The topic of “risk” always factors prominently in the minds and weighs heavily on the shoulders of association executives, especially at the CEO level.  But regardless of your role, ask yourself which of the following most closely resembles your association:

Association A:  If we take a calculated risk, our primary concern is the impact of failure.

Association B:  If we take a calculated risk, our primary concern is the impact of success.

In other words, some associations camp on the question of “what if it doesn’t work”, while others work from the perspective of “what if it does”.  Which of these two environments do you think has the greatest abundance of social capital and potential for future success?   

As association executives at any level of management or responsibility, our role is not only to ensure the execution of marching orders issued by our governing leadership, but also to serve as dynamic leaders and facilitators of social capital within our associations at all levels.  Let’s face it, if social capital disappears from your association, the next vanishing act may be that of your association. 

Think of social capital as a measurable predictor of success, stagnation or failure within your association.  Why?  Because the degree to which members, leaders and staff feel a sense of cohesion, belonging, purpose and investment within the association will directly impact future output and action at all levels.

From the very beginning, the driving principle of associations has been rooted in the recognition that our success ultimately depends on the success of others.  Put another way, if our success is driven by the desire for personal gain and not the ultimate success of others, then there is little chance for survival on both an individual and collective level.  However, if we focus our energy and service on helping others succeed for the good of the whole, then we all succeed.  After all, I don’t know too many people who if given the option would prefer to fail than to succeed. 

Now for the million-dollar question, how do you cultivate, measure and track social capital?  Well, if you’ve read or heard me talk about my concept of Association EQ, then you likely know what I’m about to say.  I would argue that social capital is not driven by logic, rather it is rooted in emotion.  Remember, we are talking about a “sense” of belonging, cohesion, healthy relationships, connecting, and experiences as contributors to social capital.  I might suggest a slightly simplified definition of social capital as “a cohesively unifying state of emotional well-being”.

Regardless, my point is the measure of social capital may very well be the measure of emotion as behavioral economics suggests that the majority of people base economic decisions based upon emotion rather than logic.  So, if the desire of your association is to strenghten and expand your base of people (including members, volunteers, staff and other stakeholders) then you must measure the degree of emotional attachment to your association as a whole and in its parts.  Here’s where it’s time to get real in bringing psychology into play.

At this point, I have reminded myself that my goal was to write a blog posting rather than a book.  Given the many dimensions of this issue materializing in my mind I am going to create a related series of postings in near future to further explore ideas for putting social capital cultivation into practice within your association.  Stay tuned!

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Entry filed under: Human Imperfection, Managing Change, Organizational Management, participation, people, Web Me.0. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Succeed in association business innovation by seperating it from “the pack” in the developmental phases Contemplating the Future Impact of Cause and Effect in Associations

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