Strengthening your organization through sustainability & ESG

Canadian Society of Association Executives Penny Tantakis in The Canadian Business Quarterly

It’s no secret that organizations are increasingly feeling the pressure to respond to social and environmental imperatives. More and more, stakeholders—members, shareholders and partners, as well as government—want to see how organizations are stewarding their success while acting responsibly. 

The association sector, by its very nature, intersects with virtually every profession and industry across Canada, so opportunities abound to show leadership while fostering professional and organizational resilience and relevance. The Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) is a national, member-based organization that fosters excellence in the association sector in Canada.  As part of its commitment to a sustainable and just future, CSAE has begun intentional work along the sustainability pathway. 

But where to begin? Providing a framework, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are helping organizations to advance and evaluate their activities—and mobilize change in the interest of a more sustainable, equitable world. The SDGs articulate 17 global goals universally adopted by the United Nations in 2015: 

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnership for the goals

While not all goals are directly relevant to the practices of CSAE, several were already on the organization’s radar as important. Indeed, some actions were already being taken with respect to sustainability considerations—when, for example, holding large conferences that generate waste.

With a vision to empower associations to transform the world and a mission to deliver the knowledge, resources and environment to advance association excellence, CSAE not only recognizes the social good inherent in its very reason for being, but it also sees the leadership opportunities in evolving its sustainability practices. By advancing on identified goals, CSAE can, in turn, support its members in their own efforts. 

By no means is CSAE the first Canadian association to make strides in SDGs—or what are also referred to as ESG (Environment, Sustainability, Governance) goals. Some organizations are blazing the trail, and learning from them is key. 

In October 2019, CSAE hosted a roundtable on sustainability and social responsibility programming at its annual conference to discuss the exploding trend of environmental activism. Interestingly, this session coincided with the global climate strikes that were taking place and giving rise to increased conversation about the future of the planet. The panel discussed how associations can take action to put sustainability on their own agendas. Moderated by Coro Strandberg, an expert on sustainability leadership and transformational business practices, speakers included Paul Lansbergen, President of the Fisheries Council of Canada, Katherine McColgan, Executive Director of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations and Beth McMahon, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Their associations’ unique stories and experiences demonstrated the importance and viability of social responsibility as it pertains to climate, as well as to the broader array of SDGs/ESGs. CSAE was fortunate to provide this platform for exploration, to help foster conversation and action amongst members who were attending from a wide range of associations across many different industries. 

This was one of CSAE’s first program offerings focused on SDGs/ESGs; it was just the beginning. The organization has continued putting social good on the collective agenda. Most recently, a special sustainability session was held at the CSAE Summer Summit in July 2022, featuring two associations that are integrating the SDGs into their operational practices and missions. Dr. Josipa Petrunic, Executive Director and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium and Rebecca Mackenzie, President and CEO of the Culinary Tourism Alliance discussed their efforts to reduce their environmental footprint while fostering inclusivity and diversity.  

In 2021, CSAE joined 58 other associations, including industry, business, and professional associations, in the first national benchmark survey of the sustainability practices; this useful tool helped CSAE gain insights into its current state on the social responsibility path. As a small and nimble organization, CSAE has been able to quickly implement wellness initiatives to support team health and well-being (SDG #3), during the transition to remote work—which was prompted by the pandemic but galvanized by operational considerations which supported a permanent shift. This shift has clear benefits from a sustainability perspective, minimizing resource consumption from commuting to maintaining a bricks-and-mortar office. 

Another area of focused work at CSAE is on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), which directly ties into two of the SDGs and has ripple effects into other goals as well. In addition to just being the right thing to do, research shows that being diverse, equitable and inclusive yields a myriad of benefits for organizations—from greater innovation and creativity, to better decision-making and a healthier bottom line. CSAE’s strategic plan for 2022–2025 identified diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as a priority and part of its commitment to continuous improvement. Like any organizational priority, EDI requires a thoughtful, informed strategy, with objectives and measurements, as well as flexibility, as it moves through the plan. In partnership with Shafana Mitha of aKollage Consulting, CSAE is undertaking a three-phase process. The first phase involves a current state assessment through stakeholder conversations and a comprehensive review of CSAE’s policies and processes. This phase will help CSAE identify strengths, gaps and barriers to EDI as well as opportunities to help the organization continue to strengthen going forward. Phase two, informed by the findings of phase one, will articulate CSAE’s vision, values and high-level goals for EDI. From there, an action plan with deliverables and measures will be developed. This plan will guide CSAE’s work for the next three years. As a separate area of focus and discussion, CSAE is also considering how to best address Truth and Reconciliation as part of its social justice efforts. 

By doing this important work, sharing learnings with the association community and providing forums for robust knowledge-sharing and championing the work of its member organizations, CSAE is playing its part in building a national conversation while taking practical steps on the ESG/EDG path. CSAE’s President and CEO, Tracy Folkes Hanson explains: “As a hub for the sector, it is important that CSAE takes action while providing opportunities to associations across Canada to gain and share knowledge. Collectively discussing challenges and ways to advance this work is incredibly powerful, and the more we talk about what we’re doing, the more we make progress. It’s the adage from Maya Angelou: ‘When you know better, you do better.’ This isn’t just altruism, although many associations do have social good or justice intrinsically part of their mission. Ethical and sustainable practices mitigate risk, foster innovation and leverage opportunities. And that is good for the bottom line.”

Penny Tantakis is Director, Marketing and Communications for the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE),


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