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A Support System for DEI

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have attracted political enemies and seen flagging support. To keep them running strong, experts say, expand the range of people your association connects with, and think long-term.

Teshia A. Birts, CDE, CAE, director of membership and component relations at the American Health Law Association, uses the term “long haul” often when she talks about what helps its DEI efforts succeed. Like many organizations, AHLA was stepping up its activities around DEI following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. But Birts recognized that short-term efforts wouldn’t be meaningful.

“Any association executive that goes into this thinking, ‘OK, we’ll just teach our leaders about unconscious bias, and we’ll do that a couple times a year, and that’s going to be enough’—they’re missing the whole point,” she said.

When Birts was helping to organize AHLA’s DEI initiative, she made sure both to solicit a partner that would deliver regular training to staff and volunteer leaders, and to submit a proposal for a five-year commitment from the board, which it agreed to in 2022. That’s given AHLA enough time to conduct assessments with leaders and members about the gaps in its previous DEI efforts—an important priority for Birts beyond the training sessions.

If giving the organization time to stand up DEI programs helps make them sustainable, so does building out specific DEI programs that are meaningful to members. Since 2022, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors has offered a DEI training and certificate program for its members, based on “actionable strategies that people could use to implement DEI at their firms,” said Nikki Palluzzi, senior director, member services and experience at NAPFA.

The initiative demonstrates the association’s responsiveness to calls for DEI efforts within the industry and creates a clear deliverable around it. Moreover, NAPFA has worked to provide the certificate program for large and small firms alike and has expanded into whole-staff trainings; one recent training seminar included all 33 employees of one member firm.

“We were hearing things like, ‘You’re not speaking to my firm size or my firm structure, so I still don’t know what to do,’” Palluzzi said. “So we were really intentional about reaching out to firms of all different sizes.”

If giving the organization time to stand up DEI programs helps make them sustainable, so does building out specific DEI programs that are meaningful to members.

Handling Pushback

DEI efforts have received some vocal pushback in the past two years, including legislative attacks. And at the same time, reports have shown that companies are paring back their DEI staffs, and that there are now fewer openings for DEI leadership roles. Experts suggest that the shift betrays a lack of sincere commitment to the efforts, combined with political pressure and a belief that employees dislike the programs. (Surveys show that DEI programs generally enjoy rank-and-file support, however; see sidebar.)Birts says AHLA has received some “detractors,” and its response has been to hear the feedback but also to be firm about the importance of its committee trainings. Similarly, NAFPA’s Palluzzi said its efforts thrive because it integrates DEI into all of its work. That communicates its importance across the organization, while preventing it from becoming siloed.

“Everything that we do as an organization has DEI as one of the main drivers,” she said. “So the commitment from our board allows us as an organization to make sure that everything we’re doing ties back to DEI. That’s whether we’re looking for diverse people to be part of our committees, whether we’re developing content that’s accessible, or whether we’re focusing on young professionals, because age is also an area of diversity.”

And because the efforts are so broad and board-driven, she added, that makes it easier to address skeptics.

“You’re always going to see a little bit of criticism when you work on DEI,” said Palluzzi. “But it’s easy for us to say, ‘Listen, this is our strategic framework.’ That includes lots of things—professional excellence, advocacy. So, you’re going to see us doing things like DEI and providing support for DEI initiatives. That’s just who we are.”

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.

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