How to Activate Thoughtful Inclusion at Your Association

As America reckons with issues of race and gender, many associations are re-upping their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Here are practical steps that leaders can take to create organizational cultures and safe, welcoming spaces for their members.

Research suggests that associations “only engage in D&I practices to a modest degree,” and, like most companies and nonprofits, they struggle to attract and retain minority board members, leaders, and employees.

Even though associations are designed to reflect the multiplicity of their communities, many leaders are unsure exactly how to make that happen.

“What we’re seeing with [associations] is they’re starting to mirror that change in society of wanting to have the conversations, wanting to have more open spaces, but not always knowing how to do it,” says Ashly Stewart, senior marketing manager at Personify, which develops membership management solutions for associations. “So that’s where the practical comes in.”

Find Your “Why”

The first step is for association leaders to get real about the “why” behind their DEI.

“It’s important to examine why it’s important to you,” says Stewart, who is female, Asian American, and grew up in an at-risk community, all of which informs her own passion for inclusion. “I know what it feels like to feel ‘other’ a lot and to feel like I don’t have a voice of representation.”

Not everyone’s “why” will be that personal—and that’s OK. Maybe it’s important to your members or your staff or the talent you want to attract, says Stewart. Or perhaps “your membership looks and sounds different than it did 5 to 10 years ago.”

“[D]ecide why it’s important to you, and once you decide, be honest about it,” she continues. “If it is because the world is telling you that it should be important to you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but then I think your approach to inclusion will look very different.”

Use Data To Start Conversations

After establishing their “why,” associations—especially those who are new to diversity and inclusion, says Stewart—should ramp up qualitative and quantitative data collection.

Personify intentionally solicits information, input, and feedback from a multiplicity of sources.

The company has a “truly diverse” DEI committee with members from different races and ethnicities, abilities and educational backgrounds—something that impressed Stewart when she joined the company last year.

Before launching an initiative to recruit and promote Black employees, CEO Scott Collision sought input from Black leaders at Personify. In turn, one sales leader reached out to his fraternity brothers for additional insights he could bring back to the team.

These attitudes and actions helped Stewart feel safe to bring up DEI-related concerns to the leadership team and “not feel weird about it.”

Association leaders should also acknowledge their blind spots and then consciously include “members in your organization that you are trying to better understand,” as well as people outside of it, says Stewart.

“The conversation about DEI or inclusivity, for so many years, was quiet, or it was seen as very private or very exclusive, which is so ironic,” she continues. “[T]his topic is not served by whispers. We need to move beyond the private boardroom conversations, the private staff meetings because… If your association is going to be inclusive, it needs to reflect your community, which means you’re going to have to have conversations beyond the doors of your association. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

Some of these conversations will be uncomfortable, a reality associations should anticipate.

“[T]alk to your people, talk to your members and be prepared for potentially uncomfortable emotional conversations,” says Stewart. “[O]nce you’ve listened, truly listened, that’s when you can kind of start the work of inclusion.”

Create Welcoming Spaces

Personify continuously gathers qualitative and quantitative data from clients to improve their products and add value for the associations they serve.

For example, they created the Mission: Possible webinar series, which launched last February, because clients and prospective clients were looking for thought leadership and actionable advice around topical issues.

Associations can also use surveys, feedback forms, and dedicated online communities to better understand and serve their members.

That being said, Stewart cautions against an over-reliance on membership data, which “doesn’t necessarily tell a story” and is more “like a snapshot.”

If only certain types of people feel welcomed by your association, your membership base probably does not fully represent the diversity of your community—and information you get from them will have the same bias.

“As important as it is to hear from your micro community, there’s kind of a macro community to include as well,” says Stewart.

Comparing what you hear from members with Census data and demographic research is one way leaders can see just how representative their boards, staff, and members actually are—and indicate opportunities to be more welcoming to underrepresented groups.

Even things as seemingly insignificant as membership forms or web copy can make people feel marginalized.

“When we look at our membership forms, sometimes I still shake my head at some of the options given or the options that aren’t given,” Stewart says, referring to outdated questions and response options related to gender and background.

Associations should also look at their websites and social marketing to make sure they’re not using that language that some people may find “othering” and inaccessible. Don’t forget to also pay attention to event optics like speaker diversity, a concern Stewart recently broached with her Personify colleagues.

Dedicated online communities are increasingly popular with associations. If you have one, be sure to follow best practices to keep them safe for all users. Write clear and explicit community guidelines that outline core values, beliefs, and acceptable behaviors, as well as the consequences for violating them. Recruit passionate community managers (volunteer or paid) who “really care about the idea of community [and] making sure people feel welcome” and will ensure all members respect guidelines, says Stewart.

Make a Plan

A 2020 study of nonprofit associations’ DEI practices revealed that a wide majority of organizations failed to effectively link “diversity to strategy.”

Only one-quarter of respondents included diversity goals in their human resources plans, and just one-fifth involved their diversity committees in strategic planning.

“[W]e have to be so mindful of doing things like planning for progress,” says Stewart. “Our reality is that all of our systems and our establishments [were] created for the majority.” Though many steps toward conscious inclusion are practical, “they won’t get done if they’re not documented and official and agreed upon by leadership.”

As associations move towards more conscious inclusion, they need to understand that inclusion is a journey not a destination. Collecting data to start meaningful conversations and creating safe spaces in real life and online is a practice. Even your “why” will likely change over time.

Demographics will shift. Social movements will raise awareness of different injustices. Inclusive language will continue to evolve. This means associations must continuously adapt if they want to stay relevant to and representative of their members and communities.

“The final thing I would say [is that] the actions that we need to take on our journey, they’re going to change because people change,” says Stewart. “And that’s OK. This is work that we’re all doing together.”

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