How to Put Your Good DEI Intentions Into Action

Statements of support of diversity, equity, and inclusion are just the start. As one association CEO explains, you need targets—and a willingness to take a risk.

In the past couple of years, more associations—and plenty of corporate brands—have been working toward meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. It’s been an imperfect process, to be sure. Last month, my colleague Ernie Smith pointed to a recent study from Willow Marketing [PDF] that revealed some of the ongoing challenges: Only 16 percent of respondents rated their association “excellent” on DEI issues, and 40 percent were unsure if their association has a documented DEI policy.

To some extent, this is a communication issue, and Smith’s piece has some helpful guidance on how to make sure your association’s DEI work gets noticed. But it’s important for leaders to know that DEI goes beyond communication. If the substance of your DEI efforts aren’t, well, substantial, it’s easy for them to be ignored.

That’s a point that Shawn Boynes, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the American Association for Anatomy (AAA), made in a keynote speech last month. Speaking at a conference of the Association Foundation Group, Boynes described the struggle that many groups have faced in making meaningful DEI decisions, especially following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. “Many organizations stayed away from social justice issues because it didn’t fit into a nice, neat box,” he said.

And because there’s no straightforward place to slot this work, it can be hard for organizations to be decisive about it. When they’re not, it shows, Boynes noted: bandwagoneering statements, hollow platitudes, hypocritical actions. The clearest evidence of that lack of decisiveness, he said, is a lack of an action plan. Acknowledgment of a problem is one thing, however well communicated. But what is your organization actively doing about it?

Boynes neatly summarized what distinguishes one from the other: The successful organizations run toward risk.

At AAA, that work was happening before the events of 2020: In 2017, it built DEI into its overall strategy, with its board ratifying an action plan. It laid out goals to increase membership and participation among underrepresented groups, build DEI into all of its committee work, and ensure that its leadership and awards were more representative of its membership. (It’s since launched professional development and awards programs around DEI, among other work.)

I was fortunate to work with a leadership group that ran toward risk.

Shawn Boynes, FASAE, CAE

Because that ground had already been laid, it was easier for the association to make a clear and direct antiracism statement in June 2020. “I was fortunate to work with a leadership group that ran to risk,” Boynes said. “So we did something we had never done before: We issued a statement about racism.”

Last year I wrote about a handful of associations that have ramped up their DEI efforts, and the common thread among the leaders was intentionality. Understand the business impact of your efforts, build it into your strategic discussions, and, yes, communicate it as often and as thoroughly as possible. And keep returning to the work.

“As you think about where your organization is heading going forward, look at your values and your mission,” Boynes said. “Are you fully embracing and using those things to make decisions?”

How has your association created and sustained substantive DEI efforts? Share your experiences in the comments.

(designer491/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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