The New Playbook
for Executive Leaders
Organizational Strategy

A Reckoning With Ethics and Injustice

In this article:
The economic downturn brought on by COVID-19, combined with rising social justice movements, has put matters of ethics and equity front and center for associations. Transparency and a spirit of questioning and openness can prepare leaders to handle those challenges.

The past year has put new pressure on organizations to operate ethically. Are financial shortcuts you wouldn’t have considered in a boom economy now on the table? How do you need to adjust your approaches to hiring, volunteering, and retention in the wake of national protests around race?

Such questions will only become increasingly relevant: A 2020 Deloitte survey of millennials and Gen Zers showed that they keep social responsibility top of mind when deciding what organizations they will engage with. Their loyalty to an organization, for instance, increasingly depends on its commitment to matters like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and sustainability.

MaryAnne Bobrow, CAE, a longtime association consultant on ethics and management, says that COVID-19 has increased ethical challenges for associations that feel the strain of tighter budgets and more anxiety among members and stakeholders. The loss of in-person meetings, for instance, may make vendors more eager to connect with associations in ways that had previously been barred, and economic stress may cause staffers to consider them.

“The pandemic has thrown everyone for a loop,” Bobrow says. “And people like to take shortcuts.”

The past year should prompt association leaders not just to think more seriously about ethics, Bobrow says, but also to make sure that their ethics policy is a living document. “It is up to industry associations to uphold ethical behavior within their industries,” she says. “Ethics policies ought to constantly be updated and revised, because the world is constantly updating and being revised.”

Advancing D+I as an ethical principle in your organization begins with looking inward, says Billy M. Williams, senior vice president for ethics, diversity, and inclusion at the American Geophysical Union: “You don’t start just by appointing some committee. You have to start with examining yourself, and that includes examining the data for your organization.”

Stepping Up in STEM

In 2017, the American Geophysical Union began to take a close look at how challenges around diversity and gender equity were affecting its membership. It elevated its director of science, Billy M. Williams, to a new role of senior vice president for ethics, diversity, and inclusion. In the following months, AGU developed policies on workplace fairness, harassment, and inclusion in geoscience—the least racially and ethnically diverse STEM field, according to one study—and launched a dedicated Ethics and Equity Center.

So when COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, Williams says, the association was already better equipped to handle conversations about gender inequities related to remote work and similar issues. But when the killing of George Floyd by a police officer last spring launched nationwide protests and discussions focused on systemic racism, “everything that was being done around D+I was put on steroids,” he says.

“On a daily basis, people were reaching out about AGU’s practices,” Williams says. “We received a lot of requests to speak to boards at other organizations or speak to groups that weren’t as far along. It’s a good thing, but there was heavy demand.”

Within AGU itself, Williams led series of webinars and events throughout 2020 around diversity and anti-racism within geoscience. The smoothness and regularity of those events belie the difficulty at AGU—or any association—of kicking off internal reckonings with its own shortcomings. “It was a huge step,” he says.

Advancing D+I as an ethical principle in your organization begins with looking inward, Williams says. “You don’t start just by appointing some committee,” he says. “You have to start with examining yourself, and that includes examining the data for your organization. What do the demographics of your staff look like? What do the demographics of the board look like? What are your organization’s values?”

In 2021, AGU is launching a dedicated program called AGU LANDInG (Leadership Academy and Network for Diversity and Inclusion in the Geosciences) to improve D+I in the field. Efforts like this one, Williams says, give the organization the resilience to handle future challenges.

“Some of the intensity around race and the regrettable polarization in the United States may die away,” he says. “But I think we will have better tools to know how to engage in difficult conversations, how to resolve conflict, and how to treat everybody with respect, even if you might disagree with them.”

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 from Organizational Strategy

View Lead2021
Changes born of necessity last year may be keys to your organization’s future success. As the COVID-19 crisis finally begins to abate, consider which new ways of thinking and working are worth holding on to.
COVID-19 blew up the traditional association business model that relied heavily on revenue from in-person events and sponsorships to fund the mission. Organizations are taking what they learned over the past year to create new, more crisis-resistant revenue streams.
Just when your association had built up its data savvy, 2020 made your pre-pandemic data a lot less reliable for planning future programs. Making decisions and setting goals in 2021 will require a well-rounded approach that explores member needs in a variety of ways.