Do We All Have a Seat at the Table?

Written by Susan Noell on September 1, 2017

“I was both surprised and pleased to learn that the ratio of women leaders in the nonprofit sector is much less out-of-balance than expected. We are fortunate that the percent of nonprofits run by women is much higher than the percentage of businesses run by women in for-profit sector. Because the Academy is a health care association, we know the importance of inclusivity regardless of race, color, gender or creed, as health care embraces and impacts every culture, not only in our industry but in our world.” - Susan A. Cantrell, RPh, CAE, Chief Executive Officer, Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy

As association staff, we are in a very unique position. We change lives, we make a difference, and we contribute to society each and every day. Why? Because as passionate people, we get to inspire and engage with members and leaders who hold a similar, or even higher, level of passion for their industry. Associations are respected, and represent the face of their respective industries. Associations have the power and ability to make real social impact.

All of this is very positive. And yet, diversity remains a challenge in many association environments.

As a member of several associations, allow me to share a picture of the significance of diversity in the member experience. Have you ever walked into a room and felt like everyone was staring at you, or attended a meeting and found it extremely hard to make introductions and network? It feels like you’re the “odd man out.”

But it works two ways: you (this was me) can overcome the human urge to retreat and can open yourself up to others.

We all have something to offer, and diversity is a pattern that will help our wider society as well as our industry. We all have important contributions to make, whether as a lay member, committee member, board member or even as association staff. Including this multitude of voices is a powerful way to strengthen the perspective, and broaden the reach, of your decisions.

“We have a duty to our members to try to give them the best leadership that we can… and I think that we miss a lot if we don’t have diversity at the table because each person brings a different perspective, and we often let things run right by us if we don’t have those different perspectives.” - Mark W. Light, CEO and Executive Director, International Association of Fire Chiefs

Creating a Diverse Culture

How can this be done? First start by assuring everyone has a seat at the table, by having your current leaders and staff engage and grow members of varying cultures. If you are seeing a deficiency of cultures know that the outside world is witness to enormous difference. It’s a good sign - and high time diversity became part of your organizational strategy.

Resources are abundant to help associations incorporate diversity and inclusion. The American Society of Association Executives has tools to help develop, implement and execute a strategy to get all cultures involved in your association. You’ll find that everyone has a contribution. And success is everyone’s goal. Let’s use our skills and powers to keep this at the forefront.

“Many organizations understand that to succeed today they need to bring together the brightest minds from a wide variety of backgrounds to tackle tough challenges and make the best decisions.” - Sikha Singh, MHS, PMP, Manager at the Association of Public Health Laboratories, and member of the ASAE Diversity Executive Leadership Program Class of 2012-2014, and Darlene Lebron Lopez, MBA, member of the ASAE Diversity Executive Leadership Program Class of 2012-2014

Diversity strengthens your advocacy reach too. It is a sensitive issue and requires constant attention and strategy. Everyone wants to fit in but how do we as associations deal with this issue? We look within ourselves. We ensure that there is a broad spread of people within our organizations helping us achieve a balanced portrayal of our industry.

Don’t Wait - Act Now!

It would appear that some are waiting until a member questions inclusiveness. Or have an “aha” moment at their conference when the professional photograph delivers conference pictures that reveal some sense of homogeneity. This is not a successful stance for any of us: diverse representation brings an abundance of not only cultures but talents to an association and the industry it strives to represent.

“Association professionals have an important role to play in equity, diversity and inclusion work. Sure, the current political environment has its challenges. But make no mistake, there are also a plethora of opportunities as well. First, we don’t want to assume that race [or] gender…are “the problem”. Inclusion means that we want to create a transparent and fair system for all. If you don’t know what else “the problem” could be, do an assessment to find out what the real issues are. Second, don’t lead with training. Be sensitive to the fact that folks hate diversity training. Employ the use of other effective tools in your tool box. Perhaps, coaching or mentoring would work better. Or maybe you could update your policies and launch an improved communications effort… it’s important to distinguish between training (which improves skill) and education (which improves knowledge). Third, go beyond workforce diversity. Explore how you could diversify the Board, volunteers, community partners and funders.” - Leah Smiley, President, The Society for Diversity

We shouldn’t be passive and wait until we’re called out on social media or other wide public venues before we realize there is an absence in our portrayal of the association industry. Instead we should take those same reigns of leadership and use our passion to ignite and increase more passion through inclusion.

Associations are in an optimal position to progress diversity. Talk about and acknowledge this need in your strategic efforts. Look at your association material – is it the face of your members or is it the face of your industry? In an optimal situation, it should be both. Encourage other cultures to become involved. Have them photographed to show the face of your industry in your publications, on your website and at your meetings.

Then we can all have a seat at the table.