Going Global in Trust-Challenged Times

Global trust in institutions is at a low ebb, which presents a challenge for associations reaching beyond the United States. Expansion is still worth it, but be careful about your strategy.

When it comes to going global, associations these days might feel pulled in two directions.

On one hand, it’s fact for many associations that the path to revenue growth via meetings, credentialing, and other products increasingly leads outside the United States. (Emily Bratcher’s report last week on a global certification launched by the National Association of Insurance and Finance Advisors spotlights one example of that trend.) But the strength of those efforts is often based on the trust people around the world place in institutions. And that trust is eroding.

Ongoing globalization and technological change are now further weakening people’s trust in global institutions.

That erosion isn’t exclusively a function of partisan politics in the United States and Europe, though no doubt that has an impact. But the problem goes back further than 2016: A report earlier this year from Edelman trumpeted (or, rather, sad-tromboned) a “global implosion of trust.” Trust in organizations from government to media to NGOs have all been sinking steadily, and trust in CEOs has dropped to 37 percent. That’s not a good sign for associations that trade on their role as the leader in knowledge and best practices.

Ongoing globalization and technological change are now further weakening people’s trust in global institutions, which they believe have failed to protect them from the negative effects of these forces,” writes Richard Edelman in one commentary on his firm’s report. That comment hints at the shift leaders need to make if they’re going to make successful inroads in other countries—understanding the broad range of frustrations in a country, instead of parachuting in with a “solution” that people are skeptical about.

Earlier this month, leadership expert Eric J. McNulty wrote about this challenge, proposing that leaders make a shift from being leaders of a system to leaders in a system. A small change in prepositions can make a big impact, he writes: “Rather than a solitary leader, the executive is part of a connected community of leaders allied by values and interests,” McNulty writes. “Although each leader is evaluated on their achievements at the firm level, the leader sees part of that success linked to the performance of his or her industry or sector in addressing larger issues.”

Which is to say that while the association going global needs to think about how its effort serves its own mission, gaining traction also requires thinking about how what you’re offering does to help the larger universe of challenges each new country faces. Associations need to think more broadly about what its value proposition is, and be clearer with people overseas about their authority.

But in some ways the Edelman report is delivering a cautionary note that associations should already have taken to heart—some countries are more skeptical of American “interlopers” than others, but no association should assume a quick embrace just because they’re recognized as an industry standard-bearer in the United States. In Global Growth Strategies, a 2015 white paper published by the ASAE Foundation (and which I had a hand in), association leaders routinely spoke out about the virtues of patience and relationship-building. “Business, we know, is all about relationships anywhere, but in China, it’s relationships on steroids,” one respondent said. “If you’re going to go in with that gun-slinging American approach, it won’t work.”

And without understanding the broader culture of the country you’re entering—and coming to that understanding in-person whenever possible—associations risk botching opportunities to build stronger relationships there. (In the case of NAIFA, for instance, the association had already spent time in the Asian countries it targeted, and thought about the translation needs of the professionals its credential could serve.) As Global Growth Strategies put it: “Your association leaders are the embodiment of your brand in new markets, and goodwill matters when it comes to promoting your brand overseas—it can make the difference between being perceived as an aggressive American interloper and an organization that is willing to build a symbiotic relationship.”

And if trust keeps on eroding, that need to build goodwill will only intensify.

What does your association do to build trust in countries it wants to do business in? 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

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