How Two Associations Built Diverse Boards

Think marathon, not sprint, they say. But don’t wait to start building a culture that champions diversity.

A decade ago, the Online News Association’s leadership persuaded itself that it didn’t need to think much about diversity. As a report at the time put it, “nothing about racial diversity was on the agenda [at an ONA conference] because the organization dealt with technology, which is colorblind.”

Awkward, to put it mildly.

It can’t just be a few people, it can’t just be the staff, it can’t just be the board.

ONA has made enormous strides since then: Last year it announced that a majority of its board was composed of women, and half were minority; this year ONA executive director Irving W. Washington, CAE, announced what he describes as “our most competitive and diverse board slate to date.” As more women and people of color enter journalism through online outlets and the field overall diversifies, its conference has worked to keep pace.

How did ONA get there? Simple: Own that lack of diversity as an issue to address, and then address it.

Of course, the process for doing that isn’t so simple. Washington says it requires a organization-wide cultural willingness to address diversity. “I think there has to be a moment of acceptance,” Washington says. “And you have to accept as an organization. It can’t just be a few people, it can’t just be the staff, it can’t just be the board. I think the whole organization from the leadership down needs to accept that it is a problem.”

ONA started on that path in 2009 when it made diversity one of its core principles and launched a diversity committee to identify ways to broaden the range of its elected leaders and conference content. In 2013 it also established a diversity appointment for its board, defining the term broadly—in terms of geography, gender, and ethnicity. That sent a signal to the organization and its membership that ONA took the issue seriously, which Washington says caught the attention of people from different backgrounds.

“It just kind of trickled down, so it became a part of the organizational DNA,” he says.

But making such appointments meaningful and sustainable doesn’t happen passively. It requires a lot of direct engagement with members and nonmembers to sound out concerns and increase participation. When Stefanie Reeves, CAE, became executive director of the Maryland Psychological Association three years ago, she knew the organization had a representation problem: The proportion of African-American members, for instance, was lower than the proportion of practitioners in the state. MPA had a D+I statement, but, Reeves says, “like with a lot of associations, it kind of sat as a statement.”

MPA’s board has a set of elected and appointed positions, and Reeves’ goal has been to diversify the leadership by targeting those appointed roles, directly reaching out to people who’ve been underrepresented in terms of both traditional D+I categories and status within the organization.

“We’re drilling down and not just looking at those who are mid- and late-career psychologists, but also looking at our early-career psychologists,” she says. “Committee chairmanship is a great training ground for developing those elected officials.” As a result of those efforts, this year MPA will have women of color serving as president and president-elect for the first time in its 62-year history.

Reeves and Washington agree that taking leadership diversity seriously requires attention to the formal processes of board nominations. But direct asks are essential for identifying and encouraging talent to create a pipeline—making diversity less a box to check off and more a core part of organizational culture.

“We talk a lot about surveys at associations, but instead of just sending out another survey, I think associations can produce enough data to where you know who your folks are and where they are,” Reeves says. “Invite a few of them to your office, provide them with lunch, and really get some feedback from them. Why are you engaged? Why are you involved? What would make you engage even more?”

Washington cautions patience with diversity efforts: ONA has improved in 10 years, but it still weathered criticism that people of color were underrepresented at its most recent conference.

“You can never rest on your laurels,” he says. “If you were to look at our conference and membership and board 10 years ago or five years ago—heck, even three years ago—it looks dramatically different than today. So the people who have been in our community for a while are happy and excited about how diverse we’re getting. But If you’re new to our community, you may have a different opinion. One of the things that we’re embracing is that it’s this mark you keep striving for.”

What does your organization do to build diverse boards? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By 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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