Does Your Membership Team Have a Diversity and Inclusion Mindset?

Diversity and inclusion require more than just lip service. To put D+I into practice, membership teams need to be constantly thinking about opportunities that foster action.

Two weeks ago, at ASAE’s Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference, I was struck by an afternoon session led by Sherry Marts, president and CEO of S*Marts Consulting LLC, and Elizabeth Engel, CAE, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting LLC. Their “Ask The Guru” discussion looked at how to maximize member engagement through diversity and inclusion efforts.

It was the last session of the day, but it drew a full house, and attendees posed great questions. It seemed that most were consciously thinking about how to put D+I initiatives into action.

The biggest takeaway for membership teams: As you work to recruit, retain, and engage members, always be thinking about D+I. That seems pretty straightforward, but what does it look like in practice?

After the conference I spoke to Engel, who co-authored a white paper with Marts [PDF]. The paper makes the case that membership teams are in a unique position to help build more diverse and inclusive organizations. It also includes interviews with ASAE Diversity Executive Leadership Program mentors and scholars, as well as Cie Armtead, chair of ASAE’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and pulls heavily from the experience of a handful of STEM associations that Engel says have long been leaders in D+I efforts.

“These associations realized early on that they needed more diverse sets of people in science, technology, engineering, and math,” Engel says. “While they’re not perfect, other associations can look to them as an example for how to attract and retain members from diverse backgrounds.”

In her paper, Engel highlighted three STEM associations in particular—the Association for Women in Science, the Entomological Society of America, and the Geological Society of America—that she said have put a D+I mindset into concrete practice. GSA provides a great example of how membership teams can drive a D+I initiative into action.

Target member recruitment to underrepresented groups. One of the ways that GSA recruits the next generation of members is through a campus rep program that relies on a volunteer network of members recruiting at minority-serving institutions. The program has more than 600 participants and serves as a pipeline for GSA membership. It’s a strategy that makes sense, given that diversity is a defining characteristic of the millennial generation.

“It’s totally appropriate for membership teams to target outreach to specific underrepresented groups,” Engel says. “And in order to get those generations to join, you’re going to need to think and act with diversity and inclusion as a mindset.”

Recognize your biases and inclusion gaps. Membership teams engage with members daily and should make a deliberate effort to identify their implicit biases and inclusion gaps, Engel says. To do that, she suggests taking time to answer a few questions either individually or with your team. She lists a few reflection questions [PDF] at the end of her paper, including:

  • What topics make you uncomfortable? Why do you think that is?
  • Where are the gaps between your association’s vision of real inclusion and your day-to-day reality? What can you do to bridge them?
  • What is one action you can take to combat in yourself the implicit biases we all share?

Create “sponsorships” to develop future leaders. While many young members, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, can benefit from mentoring relationships with older members, Engel says associations should imitate GSA’s sponsorship programs as a way to build a diverse pipeline of future leaders.

“In a mentorship, the mentor and protégé are helping and growing together,” she says. “But in a sponsorship, you’re actively pushing the participant and challenging them to take on leadership or a position of prominence.”

GSA created an awards program for historically underrepresented groups. The “On to the Future” program awards partial travel scholarships to undergraduates, recent grads, and graduate students in the geosciences to attend the association’s annual meeting. The program is a sponsorship opportunity that gives scholars access to networks and tools that can further a career in the geosciences.

When you get personal, explain why. Your D+I mindset should go into every level of your membership strategy and every interaction with your members—including the small stuff, like a join or renewal form or a conference registration page, where you can gather demographic information to help you better understand who your members are. It’s not always easy to ask about race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, Engel says, and the key is transparency.

“People might be hesitant to give that information if they don’t know why you’re asking,” she says. “If you’ve engaged with a member first at a personal level, then you will be able to better explain why you’re asking for such sensitive information.”

Take for instance, a call for conference speakers. Engel says it’s perfectly acceptable to ask prospective members probing questions, so long as they help you meet a D+I strategic policy or goal.

“You can ask your member a question, so long as you explain why the question is useful,” she says. “The biggest thing when you’re collecting member information of any kind is that you don’t want to ask for something if you don’t have a plan to use it.”

How are you applying a D+I mindset to membership? Have you created opportunities or engaged with members directly in a way that advances a D+I priority or initiative? Leave your comments in the thread below.


Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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