Susan K. Neely, CAE

From Where I Sit: Speaking Together

Big goals take big vision and a collective voice. The key: building consensus.

the freedom to associate has always been one of this country’s most cherished rights and among its greatest strengths. The Sons of Liberty brought together the separated classes of shopkeepers, political leaders, and common folk to confront the power of the British crown. The suffragettes formed the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 to organize competing voices under a single banner and amplify their cause. And more recently, the NAACP helped unify disparate voices throughout America in a convincing call for racial justice.

When companies or individual professionals join forces for a common cause, they, too, demonstrate the impact of collective action. ASAE calls this the “Power of A”—the ability of associations to mobilize the exceptional talent and wide reach of their members to build a stronger nation and world. They do that by helping their members identify the principles and challenges they have in common and then guiding them to solutions that demonstrate the essential role they play in improving society and maintaining a healthy economy.

ASAE and hundreds of its members acted successfully together when Congress moved to impose excessive restrictions on government employee travel to meetings that educate policymakers on how regulations affect industry. The Society for Neuroscience worked to plug the “leaky pipeline” in which underrepresented minority researchers leave the sciences at higher rates due to cultural and financial pressures. And industry united through the American Beverage Association to change the mix of beverages sold in schools, reducing beverage calories in schools by 90 percent.

So how do organizations achieve successful collaborations like these?

The first step is to affirm that everyone on the board agrees there is a problem or need that can best be resolved through joint action. The second is for the association’s staff to prepare an analysis, with the input of volunteer leadership, on the benefits and risks of acting jointly. Many questions will need answering to determine which direction to take.

Third, dedicate sufficient time for a full discussion of the benefit-risk analysis. Consensus is more likely to be reached if the decision makers have the opportunity to thoughtfully weigh all the variables before them. The volunteer chair or staff executive can keep the process moving by periodically summarizing the viewpoints raised in the debate and clarifying the collective sense of the group.

The leaders of the American Revolution and the women’s and civil rights movements spent a great deal of time building consensus that would appeal to the masses. Being thoughtful about the process for reaching consensus is the best way for associations of any kind to find the power of their collective voice.


p>Susan K. Neely, CAE, is chair of the ASAE Board of Directors and president and CEO of the American Beverage Association. Email:

(Jonathan Timmes)

Susan K. Neely, CAE

By Susan K. Neely, CAE


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