Don’t limit ethics to defining what your organization won’t be or do. Embrace a positive ethic that declares hope for your members’ future and helps them get there.

What does it mean for an association to be an ethical organization?

For many associations, to be ethical is to simply be “not bad.” When we document and promote our ethics policies and standards, we perhaps most typically frame them merely as an absence of wrong behaviors. Being ethical means we won’t break the law or violate professional standards. We won’t misuse our resources or abuse our members’ trust.

We might think about this as a negative ethic for associations. And, of course, these are important ethical standards to articulate and adhere to. Harassment policies, for example, help ensure associations’ staff and members are treated fairly and are protected from harm based on their sex, race, religion, or other facets of their identity. Professional codes of conduct help ensure associations and their employees (and, in some cases, their members as well) adhere to industry standards and regulations, and otherwise are honest and trustworthy and follow social norms in their behaviors.

Committing to a negative ethic in these and other ways is essential for associations—essential for keeping our organizations in good standing and, most importantly, for protecting those we serve.

But the value of ethics for associations can go beyond merely avoiding harm or being trustworthy in our operations. Our moral commitments as organizations can also help us articulate what it means to proactively be and do good, and even to codify a set of standards around what good looks like as we serve our communities.

We might think about this as a positive ethic for associations, as an organization’s moral imperative not only to avoid harm but to strive for the betterment of others and to help them grow in their capabilities as persons. More than merely proclaiming to members, “We’re not bad people,” through a positive ethic the association proclaims, “We are committed to your development and to helping you thrive.”

In thinking about how an association might express a positive ethic, I’d like to suggest the idea of hope as a place to begin. “We are committed to giving you hope” seems to be as good a positive ethic as any to guide an association’s planning and actions. And perhaps especially now, in 2020, what better positive moral imperative could an association have than to strive to give its members hope for the future?

Philosopher Milton Mayeroff, in his book On Caring, talks about hope as a hope in new growth, an “expression of the plenitude of the present, a present alive with the sense of the possible.” It’s a hope that calls for courage that leads to action, rather than the wishful kind of hope “waiting for something to happen from outside.”

Far from a naïve and passive waiting for miracles, the belief in a better future is a conscious—and often courageous—choice to move forward from the present strategically, creatively, and with agency.

Psychologist Charles Snyder’s “hope theory” offers a similar vision. Hope, Snyder suggests, is an emotional state, certainly, but one that enables us to identify pathways to the future and carve out real possibilities for getting from our present state to a desired future. It’s a hope that engenders a healthy optimism and self-efficacy in the individual. Likening this kind of hope to a rainbow—an enduring symbol of hope across so many human cultures—Snyder writes, “A rainbow is a prism that sends shards of multicolored light in various directions. It lifts our spirits and makes us think of what is possible. Hope is the same—a personal rainbow of the mind.”

I think many of us would agree that our members, and our associations, are desperate to see a rainbow on the horizon of such a challenging season. For associations, then, I’d like to suggest three focal points for operationalizing a positive ethic of hope: helping members imagine a better future, empowering them to take action, and building authentic and supportive communities.

Pathways to the Future

Through a positive ethic of hope, an association believes that the community it serves has a future that isn’t yet determined and that there are still pathways available today that can lead to a desirable future. Far from a naïve and passive waiting for miracles, this belief in a better future is a conscious—and often courageous—choice to move forward from the present strategically, creatively, and with agency. It’s a choice to help shape the future rather than be shaped by it, a proactive orientation that characterizes the work of groups like the Institute for the Future that have developed proven methodologies for helping organizations think about and plan for the possible futures that lie before them.

At a minimum, associations can adopt futures thinking as a core value for their own organizational strategy and planning, declaring, “We are committed to the belief that our association, and the community we serve, can have a bright future.” Even better, associations can intentionally focus their resources in ways that help their members engage in this same form of futures thinking for themselves. (ASAE does this for associations through its ForesightWorks research initiative. For an example from my own association, see the latest edition of the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, published earlier this year.)

Enabling Action

Through a positive ethic of hope, an association also believes that there are things it and its members can and should do today to begin realizing their desired future. Not content with providing members with resources that are merely accurate or relevant or interesting, an association operating through a positive ethic of hope believes in the value of action and strives to provide its members with resources that directly inform practice.

And so the standard for creating and assessing the resources and services we provide is that they empower the member to take action toward their goals for the future, whether through toolkits, action guides, peer exemplars, or other signposts pointing members to the things they can do. Toward this end, an association declares through a positive ethic of hope, “We are committed to the belief that there is no hope for a desired future where there is no agency and capability to act to reach that future.”

Community for the Journey

And finally, through a positive ethic of hope, an association expresses a commitment to facilitating authentic and supportive professional relationships for its members. The association declares, “We are committed to the belief that there is no future where we are not in community with others.” Of course, associations by their very name exist to facilitate connections, but not all connections form a community. Handing out business cards does not a community make.

Drawing on David McMillan and David Chavis’ notions of community, I would argue that associations should foster a sense of shared belonging among members, enable them to both positively influence and be positively influenced by their peers, and ensure their most pressing needs are being met. At a minimum, then, associations operating through a positive ethic of hope actively advance initiatives supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion, ensuring all members belong and have a seat at the table. More than that, though, these organizations invite vulnerability and build trust among their members. They proclaim to each person that they are fully seen and heard, that they are supported in the fullness of who they are, and that they are not alone for the journey ahead.

Start the Conversation

A positive ethic of hope expressing all these values is certainly easier said than put into practice. Indeed, systematically and consistently living by such an ethic would require no small investment of time, resources, and planning.

So I won’t be so bold as to pretend to know or suggest how your association, specifically, should go about operationalizing a positive ethic. But I will leave you with at least one recommendation for a simple and concrete next step, one that you can initiate immediately: Have a conversation.

Share these ideas with others at your association and explore what they might mean for your work together. Gather colleagues around you and listen to them. Learn more about the positive values, whether hope or something else, that drive them and excite them in making a difference for your members. And begin, concretely, charting out ways of formally articulating through your policies and practices not only what makes your association not bad, but also what makes it good.

Mark McCormack

Mark McCormack is senior director for analytics and research, at EDUCAUSE.