Are Associations Really Democracies?

We like to tout democratic principles at the heart of associations, but the comparison between membership and citizenship doesn't always hold up.

On Monday, I trekked down to the National Mall in Washington, DC, for the presidential inauguration, to witness one of those moments that makes our democracy special. (Witness is a loose term; I was about three quarters of a mile away, but I’ll take it.) The inauguration isn’t all that different from a general session at an association conference: a big crowd, the trotting out of some apparently important people, a lot of song and dance, then a big speech at the end from the person everyone actually came to hear.

So, I had democracy and associations on my mind, and I remembered a line in this month’s issue of Associations Now, from the “How Big is Your Board?” debate (the pro-big side, in this case):

Participatory democracy is a core tenet of association governance, which requires that the many and diverse voices of an association’s membership be heard and valued.

A person who joins an association with the expectation of a leadership that is directly in touch, responsive to, and representative of his or her opinions may be disappointed.

While the article has my byline on it, I simply adapted the two sides of the debate from the arguments presented by several association executives who staged an in-person debate on board size at the 2012 ASAE Annual Meeting. I personally don’t have a strong opinion on the right size for a board, but, of all the points on both sides, this notion about democracy lying at the core of association governance, to me, rings hollow. I just don’t equate association governance with representative democracy, nor association membership with citizenship.

It’s a nice comparison to make (and it dates all the way back to Alexis de Tocqueville), but it doesn’t seem to hold up in reality. In ASAE’s recent book 10 Lessons for Cultivating Member Commitment, a follow-up on findings in The Decision to Join, one of the key lessons for association pros is “Help elected leaders understand that their perspectives on value are not representative of all members.” Because, as the data in DTJ demonstrated, they’re not. Board members place different levels of importance on certain association benefits than do rank-and-file members, and their levels of satisfaction with those benefits are far inflated compared to John Q. Member.

Say what you will about the American political system (and you could say a lot), but the leaders we choose to represent us are ever mindful of the constituents they represent; if they don’t, they get booted out in the next election. This is not so often the case in associations, where competency-based boards have supplanted constituency-based ones, member voting in board elections is minimal (particularly in larger associations), and consensus-based decision making is the norm. A person who joins an association with the expectation of a leadership that is directly in touch with, responsive to, and representative of his or her opinions may be disappointed.

Of course, a lot of the common practices of association governance have been developed specifically to sidestep the inherent challenges of democracy, such as polarization and inefficiency. (Associations are slow enough, already.) I’ll leave it to you to decide whether associations ought to be more or less like democracies, but given the differences, maybe it’s a comparison we should stop making to begin with.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!