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Effective Management

Build a Board DEI Strategy to Strengthen Leadership

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An effective DEI strategy for your board fosters greater innovation and creativity among its members. A new study from the ASAE Research Foundation provides insight into processes that strengthen volunteer leadership and improve organizational outcomes.

A growing number of associations are developing strategies to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive boards. Eighty-five percent of respondents to a recent survey have implemented a DEI strategy for their board or plan to in the next year.

But the findings, developed by Trifecta Research Group for the ASAE Research Foundation, also reveal that associations largely focused on “the D in DEI,” according to Lynn Adelmund, vice president of market research at Trifecta, while leaders often struggled to effectively address equity. In fact, 49 percent of respondents had not pursued any leading strategic practices to advance equity on their board.

Compared side by side with other responses, the data confirmed that focusing on diversity is not enough.

“The myth that needs to be dispelled is that positive change is going to happen on its own—as a natural progression due to societal changes,” Adelmund said. “That’s just not going to happen. The people who actually took action are the ones getting the results.”

Those results include new ideas and greater creativity from the board, increased empathy, and an improved ability to leverage board members’ talents. Linda MacKenzie, senior vice president for client solutions at Trifecta, specifically points to the reputation boost an association receives, especially with younger, more diverse generations, when it supports authentic DEI strategies among its leaders.

“The millennials and Gen Zs care a lot,” said MacKenzie. “They join organizations that align with their values. These are generations that are acutely aware of inclusivity.”

“The myth that needs to be dispelled is that positive change is going to happen on its own. That’s just not going to happen. The people who actually took action are the ones getting the results.” — Lynn Adelmund, Trifecta Research Group

Take Action

Adelman and MacKenzie say these key takeaways from the research can help leaders create change on their boards and get positive results.

Cocreate a plan. Staff should work with board members to develop a plan that aligns stakeholders around shared understanding and expectations. Important steps include

  • getting consensus on the dimensions—everyone should understand the definitions and then agree on them.
  • defining together what the future should look like.
  • developing a plan with specific goals.

Measure and be accountable. Adelmund and MacKenzie particularly stress the value of ongoing assessment, as well as transparency and accountability. “It is pointless to put these things into place and not evaluate,” MacKenzie said.

Accountability needs to extend to outside stakeholders, Adelmund added. Share goals and metrics with members, industry partners, or even the public. “In the data, the people who are openly accountable outside of the board are the ones who are making the most progress,” she said.

Don’t forget equity and inclusion. Even when your board is more demographically diverse, you still have work to do. Effective practices to advance equity include board training in implicit bias, a defined role for the board in advancing equity, and regular assessment against established goals. You can support inclusion by adopting formalized onboarding of new board members, using small-group discussions to avoid groupthink, implementing voting methods that allow all members to participate in choosing the organization’s leaders, and assigning experienced mentors to new board members.

Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Adelmund and MacKenzie recommend taking advantage of the numerous resources available to develop a board DEI strategy. They suggest reaching out to organizations that are doing it right or that may have insight into specific practices. For instance, companies that do employee searches, like Monster or CareerBuilder, can offer advice on how to recruit beyond existing networks.

Ensure that the work continues. Adelmund cautions against declaring victory prematurely. “Just because you’ve taken steps and you’ve made progress doesn’t mean you’ll continue to make progress,” she said. It’s critical to ingrain the work into the organizational strategy. And just as communication, evaluation, and accountability are foundational to launching a DEI strategy, these elements also keep the effort on track. Adelmund recommends continued communication on strategic goals and outcomes to ensure board members and staff remain aligned.

Jenny Nelson is ASAE’s manager of research content and knowledge resources.

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