How to Move DEI Conversations Beyond Just Talk

A commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is admirable, but success requires action. A few association leaders shared how to move beyond good intentions.

Protests around social-justice issues this year have prompted associations to prioritize conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But a conversation isn’t the same thing as taking initiative, and DEI is one of those things that has a way of generating lots of goodwill that can diminish over time.

Last week, a roundtable of five association executives addressed what that action can look like. The virtual meeting, moderated by Vista Cova’s Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, took its inspiration from CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, an initiative of PricewaterhouseCoopers that includes a pledge that CEOs lead DEI conversations, implement education on unconscious bias, be transparent about their experiences, and engage the board in their efforts. Thus far, more than 1,300 CEOs, including around 180 in the association and nonprofit space, have signed on to the pledge.

You can (and should) watch the entire conversation here:

But a few takeaways emerged from the conversation that deserve particular attention. A similar Vista Cova roundtable on the topic back in July spotlighted how motivated associations were by current events. This time around, leaders delved deeper into specifics.

How do we get the most diverse group of people together to have this conversation?

Do the research to understand the scope of the problem. The assembled executives all acknowledged that transparency—with themselves and their organizations—plays an important role in starting a DEI effort. Christie Tarantino-Dean, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the Institute of Food Technologists, got the ball rolling with a task force assigned to look at the association’s culture. It found that “we’re an organization that was made up of insiders and outsiders,” she said. In the four years since, IFT has made a point of owning those inequities—Black women in the field make 37 percent less than white male counterparts in the same job, she noted—and looking for ways to address them.

Bake DEI into every decision about decision-making. The Infectious Diseases Society of America has a drafted a board-approved roadmap on DEI, with specific goals around gathering data, studying processes, and welcoming differences. Among its goals is to “promote fair treatment and access to opportunities for all members within all levels of the organization.” That means making conscious efforts to recruit diverse teams for staff and committees and to study IDSA’s organizational structures to make sure they’re inclusive as well. “When we look to form committees, or pull a panel together, or whatever it may be, there is no hesitation from any of our staff to say, ‘OK, how do we get the most diverse group of people together to have this conversation?’” said Chris Busky, CAE, CEO of ISDA. “I can guarantee you that did not happen four years ago.”

The day-to-day stuff matters, too. Big-picture, long-term strategic DEI work around staffing, volunteer leadership, and membership is important. But it’s also meaningful to engage with staffers on everyday issues too. Leaders should keep an eye on troubling events in the news or opportunities for civic engagement that staffers might want to participate in. Angela Thompson, chief human resources and diversity officer at the American Counseling Association, said ACA has found that approach meaningful. “We have a focus on wellness and self-care for staff, so in addition to trainings, we’re giving staff mental health days to take for themselves, time off to volunteer for civic duties and around social justice,” she said.

Track the benefits and make a business case. During the conversation, Thompson also noted that there’s a cost to not engaging in DEI efforts, and Busky added that such conversations need to be part of board discussions. “Find a connection to your strategic plan,” he said. “Begin working internally with staff on small projects and training, and share results with your board. Share data that clearly shows the benefits of DEI.”

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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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