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Money Meets Action: Lessons From IEEE’s Big DEI Investment

The IEEE Computer Society says that a desire to centralize its DEI work has led to the creation of a fund to support local tech-diversity initiatives.

For associations, demonstrating the importance of DEI to their sector can take a lot of forms—new initiatives, support for leaders from diverse backgrounds, messaging, and so on.

But sometimes, it comes down to putting real money behind the effort. Case in point: the IEEE Computer Society’s Diversity & Inclusion Fund, a program that offers donations to small localized programs around the country that boost DEI in technology.

Among the programs that have been supported so far are a summer high school internship program for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students, a computer literacy program in the Indian state of Kerala, and a tiny machine learning program targeting Navajo high school students and teachers.

And more is on the way; the association will soon begin reviewing the latest round of applications. In the program’s first two years, IEEE CS has set aside half a million dollars—$100,000 in the first year and a quadrupled $400,000 in year two—to support its aims.

Building Around a Central Goal

Melissa Russell, IEEE CS’ executive director, said that the effort underlines a long-standing focus on improving diversity in the computing field.

“For an organization like ours, where engineering and science have heavily weighted on research and experimentation, it’s critical to have a really diverse view,” she said.

One of the challenges the organization has faced is that DEI initiatives have been sprinkled in a variety of directions, including conference events and editorial programs. But diversity was not at the center of the organization’s focus.

Its ongoing commitment to DEI did, however, open up an opportunity for discussion on how those efforts could have more impact.

“Soon after I started the leadership,” Russell said, “the board and a lot of the other higher level leaders of the societies said, ‘You know, we’re doing things, but it’s not obvious and it’s not a concerted effort. It’s not cohesive. What can we do to really explain and to show to the world that this is important to us?’”

The organization’s 75th anniversary in 2021 opened up an opportunity to build a more centralized approach.

Offering Long-Term Support

The internal support for the fund has been strong, and it’s likely to continue in the long run. Russell said that on top of the committed $500,000 investment, the board just approved an additional $750,000 in funding for the program over the next three years.

She said that as the program has continued, the association is learning lessons about how to better guide applicants so they more effectively ask for the resources they need, in case they feel they can do more with additional funding.

“I think one of the things that we saw with the proposals was that people were being very conservative in what they’re asking for,” she said. “So we’re trying to guide the proposals a little bit more, to ensure that people are asking for what they need.”

Russell said they’re working to expand the pool of applicants to new areas—even beyond the association’s large network of local chapters—so applicants in future years are both diverse and committed to using their funding in ambitious ways.

“It’s important for us to be doing things that really have that significant impact, as well as a grassroots impact. We want to do both,” she said. “And so I think we’ve been talking a lot about, ‘We got a lot of the grassroots in the first year, and now we want to really look at some of the bigger opportunities.’”

Lessons for Other Associations

Russell said that her advice to other associations that are thinking of doing something like this is to think about what can be done to bring in some new perspectives, beyond the technical competency that might come from experience. Pointing to the decision-making efforts by the IEEE CS board, she suggested expanding the pool of leadership candidates beyond the usual suspects.

“Don’t be afraid to call on folks that are maybe younger than who you would normally consider candidates for leadership positions, because I think they add a lot,” she said. “That’s part of the diversity.”

She added that this is a contrast from how many associations operate, “where people get to the top of their career and then they’re involved in the leadership.”

Building leadership with DEI in mind can help to strengthen the work so it reaches other audiences.

“I think it’s important to really reach as far out as you can, into your membership and into your customers, to really find people with those diverse perspectives to be part of your leadership,” she said. “Having that as your foundation, you’re able to build better.”

(wenmei Zhou/DigitalVision Vectors)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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