Defined by association

As an American citizen, I’m entitled to cast one vote each year at election time. And, although I’m fully appreciative of the minimal influence this one vote actually has on any particular outcome, I nevertheless greatly analyze and worry over the choices I will make.

It seems, however, that there’s a growing number of people and groups that would prefer I not do this. They wish me to simply adopt their choices as my own: Democrats wish me to vote for Democratic candidates; Republicans wish me to vote for Republican candidates. According to the media, all issues come down to the Democratic party vs. the Republican party, and their respective polling numbers. I don’t need any facts or information-I just need to know who’s for what and to which party they belong. This is true whether it’s evaluating the qualifications of a Supreme Court justice, where to place blame for incompetent government, or the fair price of a gallon of regular unleaded.

Somewhere along the line, these parties became greater than the policy issues themselves. In fact, in the minds and actions of the exponentially growing number of political bigots and schismatics in the country, their importance is now greater even than protecting the Constitution or the best interests of the citizens of the nation as a whole. To me, that’s a problem.

A similar problem arises when this phenomenon takes hold within industry-professional associations. Having been originally formed and fostered by dedicated industry professionals, volunteering their time and energy to advance their industry’s unique science, technology and business growth, some associations have now become megalithic, corporate-like entities unto themselves. And, with this growth and influence has also come a clear and worrisome change in their perceived raison d’être.

No longer purely motivated toward the altruistic furtherance of the goals of its members, this new breed of global “super-associations” is striking out to conquer other, previously private realms such as ever-larger-scale international exhibitions, for-profit publishing and electronic media, market research sales, professional recruitment, and a wide variety of other profit-driven joint ventures and exclusive business partnerships-with less and less time directed to “the business” of their members. Certainly, the majority of professional associations (IEST, PDA, IDEMA, and AAPS, for example) remain true to their original mission statement and don’t fall into this category, but if my description is at all accurate, the ones that do should be easily recognizable.

Of course, with this kind of model also comes competition. And the model for success in a competitive business environment is far different from that of an ostensibly altruistic, not-for-profit, membership-driven association. Simply put, competition and the desire for market dominance do not go hand in hand with such principles as inclusion, objectivity, open cooperation, and investment in worthwhile but unprofitable activities. In fact, some activities can only be seen as deliberate attempts to undermine the good work of other professional groups.

Like the adherents of political parties, association members tend to accept their affiliation largely as a matter of past history, custom and collegiality. But the question both voters and association members should also ask themselves is this: Is this organization with which I have associated myself actually working to my benefit and the overall benefit of my profession, or rather to its own? Now may be the time to ask. Like mine, their decision may only represent one voice, but it’s a voice that should be heard.

– J.S.H.


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