Why Going Global Might Require Some DEI Tweaks

United States-based associations looking to expand want to preserve their DEI goals, but some don’t always translate. Take the time to understand others’ perspectives, one expert suggests.

When it comes to going global, it’s well-known that American associations make a lot of U.S.-centric mistakes. They possess ideas about membership, meetings, partnerships, marketing, and more that make perfect sense in America but may not apply in different countries and regions. And as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) becomes a norm in organizations, it may become another source of potential friction, said Francisco Gomez, CEO of the global consultancy Factum Global.

“For the past few years associations have been very intentional around DEI,” he said. “But we’re beginning to hear some horror stories about organizations where their members, even their board members, are expressing discomfort with the amount of attention given to these issues.”

The issues that are being faced in the United States are different from the issues in Nigeria, or that you will face in Europe.

Francisco Gomez, Factum Global

To be clear: Gomez isn’t saying that people outside the U.S. dispute DEI’s core principles, or that U.S. organizations should compromise their DEI efforts. The issue, he said, is a matter of misapplication of some DEI principles. For instance, Gomez said, the term Latinx is intended to be inclusive within the United States, but in Latin American countries might be found confusing and alienating. And U.S.-focused discussions around racial bias don’t necessarily apply elsewhere.

“The issues that are being faced in the United States are different from the issues in Nigeria, or that you will face in Europe,” he said. “Some [DEI] issues, like equal pay, are issues around the world. But if you’re only addressing them in U.S. terms, you’re ignoring the rest of the populations that you’re interacting with.”

To counteract that, Gomez recommends that associations, especially those early on their path to globalization, practice what a recent Factum Global blog post called “cultural humility.” They ought to first recognize that any global effort needs to be based on understanding not only the strategic role a new country or region might play in their efforts but also the inherent cultural differences.

That understanding, Gomez said, needs to be braided with a clear sense of an association’s goals in a region—and conversations with potential partners, members, and customers. Without that, it can be easy to stray from legitimate DEI efforts and into tokenism. “Ask why you’re doing it,” Gomez said. “Do you feel there’s not enough representation in the higher levels of your organization, or on your board? Are certain groups underrepresented? Why you’re doing it will inform how you do it.”

If those questions aren’t asked, organizations run the risk of alienating the people they’re trying to connect with—in the process undermining the very principles DEI is intended to serve. “One of our clients actually lost a board member who got irritated at sitting through board meetings time and again to discuss issues that were related exclusively to the United States—an association that is trying to operate as an international association should not be so focused on this,” Gomez said. 

Again, associations needn’t abandon their principles here. But they may want to lean in more on the principles of inclusion and understanding that define DEI in the first place. “If you really want to understand the issues, you need to be talking to the people in the places that you’re trying to serve,” Gomez said.

How has your association integrated DEI into its international efforts? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Peach_iStock/iStock/Getty Images)

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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