A History of Associations

Prepared for CSAE by Meline C. Batten, CAE

When individuals come together to discuss mutual concerns, no matter what the common element is, the nucleus of an association is formed. Associations find their roots in organizations such as the church, medieval craft guilds, and merchant trading groups. The Roman Empire launched the concept of apprenticeships and trade regulation, for example, while 16th century England was the spawning ground for some of the earliest trade associations with the formation of guilds to protect both the interests of groups of merchants and individual artisans. Guilds provided training in specific skills and established rules for wages and hours of work. In the early 1800s, mercantilism was the backbone of the American economy, and local governments and the guilds worked in close co-operation.

With the introduction of factories and mass production during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, guilds were dramatically changed. No longer was quality more important than quantity, wages more significant than product. Eventually, the guilds lost their power and, consequently, soon ceased to exist for their original purpose.

The earliest association on record in the United States was the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, which was formed in 1768 by 20 merchants; it remains in existence today. Most of the early associations were local, but with the onset of the American Civil War, many regional and national organizations were formed to take advantage of the country's industrial capabilities. Railroads led to expansion and new markets for manufacturers which, in turn, resulted in the formation of more trade associations to ensure fair competition. By 1900, more than 100 associations had been organized to influence federal and state legislation, to obtain industry information, and to benefit from standardized insurance rates.

This co-operation for competition soon became co-operation for monopoly. Price-fixing, limitation of supply, and control of distribution by territory became the norm. Although there was a growing demand for goods, production was essentially controlled by associations. This led to the introduction of antitrust laws to curb the powers of the monopolies and limit restraint on trade and the exchange of price information. After several cases on the issue of open price activity were tried before the U.S. Supreme Court, a 1925 decision ruled that pricing information could be exchanged only on past transactions and must be available to both members and non-members of associations, as well as to the government and banks. The court also ruled that competitors must have no agreement to maintain prices.

Both World War I and World War II had a profound impact on the number of associations started. Trade associations supplied the government with information on available equipment, specifications for tendering, and statistics on labour and productivity. They served as a valuable link between the companies and industries they represented and the various levels of government, and they played a major role in the war effort by encouraging conservation and providing technical specialists to the public service. Associations continued to maintain their essential role as intermediaries with government even after peace was declared and the economy stabilized.

The Establishment of Professional Societies

When you examine the earliest known records of humanity, for example the Gospel of St. Luke in the Bible, you can see that some of the professions we know today existed even then and that society held them in high regard. Religious orders such as the Jesuits were renowned as scholars and teachers, and professional societies also emerged to accumulate and disseminate knowledge. The first scientific society, the Academia Secretorum of Naples, evolved in Europe during the Renaissance in 1560. Other societies spread throughout Italy and to London and Paris during the next century. The Royal Society of London, probably the best-known scientific society in the world, was founded in 1662 under royal charter. Through the years, it has studied the problems of navigation, lightning, latitude and longitude, time, and other measurements. It was the first to provide a link between Great Britain and the colonies in America even before the American Revolution.

As labour became more specialized and new occupations emerged, it fell to professional societies to develop methods of testing and evaluation and to assemble their respective bodies of knowledge for future reference. Standards were developed against which professionalism could be measured and degrees of excellence established.

Professional societies have made a significant contribution over the years as consultants to governments and academia and have played a major role in broadening the scope of the existing body of scientific knowledge. Meetings of the various societies offer an opportunity for the exchange of ideas and technical information while providing a forum for dissenting viewpoints on professional research. As a result, higher standards of professionalism are constantly being established and met.

The Evolution of Associations in Canada

There is evidence that associations existed in Canada even earlier than they did in the United States. Samuel de Champlain is credited with founding the first association in Canada in 1604 when he established L'Ordre de Bon Temps (the Order of Good Cheer) on Ile Ste-Croix in Nova Scotia, the first French settlement in North America. Champlain believed that the settlers could help overcome the effects of isolation and debilitating winters through recreation and fellowship. The Government of Nova Scotia has maintained the association to this day, offering membership to visitors to the province.

The Halifax Board of Trade was founded in 1750, predating by 18 years the first recorded association of this type in the United States, the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York.

Several learned legal societies were established in Canada during the late 1700s and early 1800s and remain active today, including the Law Society of Upper Canada (1797), the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society (1825), the Barristers' Society of New Brunswick (1846), and Le Barreau du Quebec (1849). Other professions joined together to form governing bodies like Le Collège des Médecins et Chirurgiens de la Province de Québec (1847), the Medical Society of Nova Scotia (1854), the Nova Scotia Board of Insurance Underwriters (1857), and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (1866). The Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Dental Association remain as effective today in the pursuit of high standards for their professions as they were when they were established in 1867. The Canadian Manufacturers' Association, founded in 1871, still serves as the voice of industry, while the Canadian Bankers' Association represents the banking community as actively today as it no doubt did when it was formed in 1891.

While the years from 1900 to the end of World War II saw a steady increase in the number of associations formed, the greatest period of growth occurred during the economic boom of the 1960s. More than one-third of all federally incorporated associations established since the turn of the century were registered in the last half of the sixties.

Today, there are thousands of active non-profit organizations in Canada. However, it is difficult to estimate how many unincorporated community volunteer organizations or single interest groups, which set up and then disband once their cause has been won or lost, are operating. Some sources indicate that there are as many as 70,000 associations registered in Canada today, the vast majority formed within the past 10 years. As well, some 4,000 charities are registered each year.

An Association for Association Professionals

In 1920, the American Trade Association Executives (later to be called the American Society of Association Executives) was organized as a professional society for leaders of business associations. Likewise in Canada, an organization was formed in 1951 with a nucleus of 25 members to serve as a forum for the exchange of information among association managers. Originally known as the Institute of Canadian Trade Association Executives, the organization changed its name in 1955 to the Institute of Association Executives (IAE) to more accurately reflect its members who were not only trade-oriented but represented professions and charities as well.

In 1987, after an extensive review of its mission and objectives, the members of IAE voted for a name change to bring it in line with its counterparts worldwide: the American Society of Association Executives; the Australian Society of Association Executives; the European Society of Association Executives; the Society of Association Executives (England); and the Centre d'Etude des directeurs d'associations professionnelles in France. Today, the organization is known as the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE).

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