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Does an association have an essence? Every nonprofit has a statement of purpose, programs, members and a board of directors — but what about essence.

Essence means a core nature or indispensable quality, especially something abstract that determines its character. 

There is reason to know the essence. It can help predict outcomes. It may differentiate the association from organizations with similar purposes. A person might join or renew because they respect the essence.

In a discussion with a life coach he said all people have an essence. He used terms such as their energy or aura that one can sense. 

I feel that associations have an essence; a core nature and indispensable quality that helps to characterize them for good or for bad. 

“I can’t imagine what it is like to be a member of an association that doesn’t portray an essence. Without a favorable essence it is difficult to recruit members and volunteers. I urge everyone to take a moment to identify the essence of their organization (positive or negative) and understand how it defines the association’s character,” explains Adrienne Bryant, CAE and an executive at IntrinXec Management, Inc. 

She refers to it as “je ne sais quoi,” meaning anindefinable quality that makes something distinctive or attractive. 

To identify essence start with the mission. Is it focused inward – caring only about members, or does it include external impact such as improving access to patient care, enhancing safety, community relations and a positive economic impact. 

Continue by listening to the discussions of volunteer leaders, or observe a meeting of the board. Discussions fraught with group-think, disrespect or conflict would diminish the essence. A secretive board may disdain transparency and member interaction. 

For example, do directors primarily talk about problems? A board with a positive essence is likely to focus on solutions and less on problems. 

Finding Essence 

Essence is identified thought a combination of elements.

Mission– Is the mission statement compelling? It should communicate a keen sense of purpose in a clear, crisp statement. Does it intend to benefit members as well as the community or customers they serve? For example, the essence of a medical society may be to serve doctors so they can improve society through better health. 

Values– The board is guided by values that frame their efforts. Do the values have meaning to the leadership? Do they communicate to stakeholders the dedication and determination of the board? 

The most respected values seem to be transparency, accountability, innovation, diversity and member focus. Are volunteers are aware of the cultural guiding principles and how they impact the association? 

Actions– Actions speak louder than words. Do efforts of the board of directors demonstrate the best use of resources to achieve results for the members and their constituents? 

The actions of the leaders and professional staff should feel compelling and dedicated to the mission and members. Read a set of recent meeting minutes to consider if the board meets because it is perfunctory or its work has authentic benefit to the members and community. 

Outcomes– At the close of a quarter or the end of a year there should be significant outcomes. Why does the organization exist if not for outcomes that benefit members and community?

Reflection– Essence may come partly from how members interact with the association. Members may reflect the essence. They may attribute a good or bad characterization of the organization. 

An association wants to maintain a favorable essence. When the essence is positive the board wants to preserve it. If it is negative (good old boys, lack of diversity, minimal impact) efforts should be made to improve it.

Adrienne offers another example, “I’ve also experienced this same essence in my previous association, the Association of Florida Colleges. The association is made up of members who are passionate and that attitude and passion flows through everything they do. They live and breathe their mission and values as they relate to Florida College System, their boards, students, employees, and the citizens of the state of Florida.” Spending time with a board and listening to their focus will soon reveal its essence.

William Pawlucy
William Pawlucy
Bill Pawlucy, MPA, CAE, IOM, is founder of Association Options, Inc. a company that focuses on practical strategic planning (corporate and nonprofit), management assessments, Baldrige Award process implementation, AMC search and evaluation, facilitation, and governance modeling. He is also the executive director of the International Association of Interviewers and is an appointee to the U.S. Department of Commerce Board of Examiners for the Baldrige Presidential Award.