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January 19, 2023

The Association Ecosystem

Guest Blog by Tom Smith, CAE, ENV SP, F.ASCE
Executive Director, American Society of Civil Engineers

At the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), we have a vision that engineered and natural systems work in harmony for the benefit of humanity. Achieving that vision in the face of myriad global challenges requires everyone at ASCE working together in an association ecosystem, which in turn must work together in a broader ecosystem of association ecosystems.

For us visual learners, the ecosystem of an individual association might be analogized to a tree.

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At ASCE, we have a broad and deep global membership, with diverse talents, backgrounds, and experience. ASCE members engage and associate in many diverse ways. Some support ASCE just by being members, while others go on to serve ASCE in volunteer leadership roles. Visually, I consider association members to be the far-reaching leaves of a tree, as illustrated above, with many thousands of diverse leaf shapes, colors and functions. At ASCE, we have 150,000 such leaves, and each individual leaf of course is a complex structure, in turn playing an important role in photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration, carrying food and water and giving life to the ASCE tree.

Over time, these members serve and engage further with ASCE, often in leadership positions with Sections, Branches, Institutes, committees, editorial boards, student chapters, conferences, standards developers, authors, speakers, and many other leadership roles. At ASCE, we have over 10,000 such active member leaders who have moved on to serve as branches on the ASCE tree. As members grow personally and professionally and move to higher leadership roles, they serve as increasingly bigger tree branches, ultimately serving on the ASCE Board of Direction in the central tree trunk. Of course, it is important for ASCE leaders to stay in close communication with the members, who are the leaves at the outer periphery of the tree. Indeed, it is these members who are on the front lines and often best able to see over the horizon, with an unshaded view of the rest of the world outside the tree.

Equally important to the association ecosystem, the association staff serve as the critical root structure, which can expand as far as, or even beyond, the tree canopy. Although often working behind the scenes and with less visibility, the tree roots serve a critical role in anchoring and stabilizing the tree, as well as absorbing and transporting water, minerals and nutrients. New and developing staff may serve at the outskirts of the tree root system, as emerging leaders on the front lines and best able to see new opportunities for growth and expansion into new soils and water sources. Like the roots of a tree, staff develop and grow over time, eventually serving as larger and stronger roots, in roles like managers and directors, leading departments or divisions, or ultimately serving on the staff Senior Leadership Team, which like ASCE’s Board of Direction, is in the central trunk of the tree.

The association board of directors and staff leadership team, both located in the trunk of the association tree, are essential to the success of the association ecosystem. They work together as partners, with the chief volunteer officer and chief staff officer playing critical leadership roles and managing communications with the members (leaves and branches) and staff (roots), respectively.

Some of you may have read "The Hidden Life of Trees" or related articles about a web of connectivity between trees through a complex fungal network that allows trees to communicate and support each other through their root systems. From my perspective, that is where coalitions and organizations like the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) come in, providing essential connections so we don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Our world today faces many challenges, ranging from climate change to consumption, hunger, poverty and inequalities. Addressing these challenges will require diverse and highly functioning associations (trees), working together in a broader global association community (forests).

By working together in the vast global ecosystem of individual association ecosystems, there are no problems we cannot solve.


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