Leadership

Why Measuring Diversity Matters

By / Apr 22, 2013 (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

The first step in addressing diversity is talking openly about it. That’s where leaders—and ASAE’s Association Inclusion Index—come in.

Here are a few things we know about diversity and associations:

Female association executives get paid less than their male counterparts at all levels, and female board members are dispiritingly rare.

An overwhelming majority of organizations have minorities on their boards at a rate of 25 percent or less. Nearly 40 percent of associations have no minorities on their boards at all.

Thirty-eight percent of nonprofits say that retaining younger employees is their biggest HR challenge.

We fool ourselves when we think that not talking about diversity is anything besides a (poor) strategic decision.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—after all, there are a variety of ways to talk about diversity and inclusion that goes well beyond matters of age, race, and gender. (Though those of course are three very important ones.)

The topic has a way of frustrating conversation, but I like returning to it every so often here, because diversity is essential to how associations fulfill their missions, and association leaders play a critical role in deciding whether it’s something that gets discussed or doesn’t. We fool ourselves when we think that not talking about it is anything besides a (poor) strategic decision. To a large extent we’re in the education business, so I keep returning to a comment that a tech reporter made in 2011 on diversity: “If you pretend that it’s just a meritocracy, or that the problem is too mysterious to be addressed, or that you yourself are not racist, you can’t learn.”

All of which is to say that I’d be grateful for the existence of ASAE’s Association Inclusion Index even if I weren’t an ASAE staffer. In the works for the past two years, the web-based tool lets association leaders answer a battery of questions in five domains—mission and focus, roles and leadership accountability, resources, operations, communications and culture. It’s a long survey, which is as it should be; and it asks tough, perhaps occasionally discomfiting questions, which is also as it should be. For example:

  • Does a diverse pipeline of future leaders exist as part of a formal or informal succession plan?
  • Does your association have a policy and/or practice for contracting with minority or women-owned businesses?
  • Do stakeholders view money and resources spent on diversity activities as being instrumental to mission fulfillment?
  • Does your organization have a process by which it engages in research on the ethical standards of the non-U.S. country within which it is conducting business?

It’s OK if the answers to these questions at first are “no”—the goal of the questionnaire is to spark discussion, to understand diversity and inclusion as a process, and to establish the benchmarks for improving it over time. One of the tool’s beta testers, TESOL International executive direction Rosa Aronson, CAE, notes that despite a commitment in her organization to diversity and inclusion, “we certainly lack inclusion in terms of who has access to the services we provide.”

The tool provides instant feedback on the categories in which the association is working well or needs improvement.One virtue of the tool is the breadth of resources it offers to users. There’s a lengthy document of resources for each domain—including further reading, facilitation tools, games, and more. Those documents not only lay out what brings down an a organization’s index score, but also gives guidance on what they can do to improve in each case. And over time, the Index will allow you to compare your performance against similar organizations, though of course identifying information is kept private. (A FAQ has some additional information.)

Though I just stressed privacy, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about your association’s diversity work in the comments below. What works for you? What are your trouble spots?

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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