For Leaders, Approval Starts With Awareness

Tonight's presidential debate is a reminder that Americans are skeptical of a lot of institutions---including nonprofits. Proactively building awareness of what you do can help, even if you don't have a debate stage.

Tonight marks the first of three planned presidential debates. This reminder either excites you as a political junkie or makes your heart sink as citizen weary of more than a year of public partisan squabbling.

But I come here not to pre-game the debate, or pick a side. I just want to suggest that leaders might take a moment to consider the kind of noise that surrounds the debates outside of the politics. I think there’s a lesson for associations about what strong feelings have done to the public’s perception of institutions, and why that matters to how you lead your own organizations.

The fact that neither of the individual presidential candidates are much liked has been well documented. Last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that as well as any you’ll read. But tucked in the poll data is evidence that Americans are contemptuous of institutions sometimes even more than people: They’re down on the Democratic Party (43 percent negative), the Republican Party (48 percent negative), and most of all, the news media (59 percent negative).

Why all the distaste for those groups? In an article last week at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson outlined a few reasons why anti-media feelings have intensified in recent years. Much of his reasoning echoes concerns that associations themselves have expressed: Information sources have widened, which challenges the authority of many institutions, and the way we share information with each other can do a number on your standing as well.

There’s already a crisis of negative perception at nonprofits, even without a particular incident to point to.

We’re now in an era, Thompson writes, when Americans are distrustful of practically any group you can name: “Fewer than half of Americans now say they trust the church, the medical system, the presidency, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, organized labor, the criminal justice system, big business, and Congress,” he writes, pointing to Fareed Zakaria’s argument that we’re experiencing an “uber-democratization of American institutions.”

That high degree of skepticism extends to nonprofitdom too: A 2016 study by Lindsey M. McDougle at the University of San Diego [PDF] shows that only about 30 percent of Americans have a high degree of confidence that nonprofits are providing quality services, and less than 20 percent believe nonprofits spend money wisely. Certainly those perceptions are being influenced by the high-profile scandals at charities that make the news and not the association world, but I’ve never been confident that the public makes a distinction between charities and associations when they talk about nonprofits.

And speaking of talk: Thompson points out that online chatter has made this negativity more rigid. People then take their displeasure with groups (rather than their support) to social media sites, he writes, and “many argue that these sites seal audiences’ ideological echo chambers, organizing the world of information so that some readers only see news that they are likely to agree with. …When Facebook and Twitter users share news coverage for the purpose of highlighting the most outrageously bad journalism, it has the effect of making the majority of journalism seem outrageously bad.”

And as with the media, so it goes with other institutions. Associations often talk about the importance of communicating in a crisis. But there’s already a crisis of negative perception at nonprofits, even without a particular incident to point to.

So what to do? Leaders are clarifiers-in-chief for their institutions, which is one reason why this election cycle’s debates are so galvanizing—do either of these candidates have the ability to show the value of their platforms? Speaking out about the value of what you do matters—especially these days, when there are already people talking about what you do. And more people might be loaded for bear when they hear it, but awareness can make a huge difference—it is a potentially “foundational commodity,” in McDougle’s words. McDougle’s study shows a remarkable difference between those with high and low awareness of an organization. More than 22 percent of those with low awareness have low confidence that an organization provides quality services; that number drops dramatically, to 8.7 percent, for those with high awareness.

Getting the word out about what you do isn’t the sole way to improve your standing with the public, or with members, of course—there’s still the universe of good governance, quality services, networking opportunities, and education to think about. But we’re in a time where people are poised to immediately reject what they don’t know, and reducing that lack of understanding can make a difference, in debates and elsewhere.

What do you do to communicate the value of your association’s work to the public—especially in the face of anticipated criticism? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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