What I Learned at the ASAE Diversity & Inclusion Conference

Here are a few insights I gleaned from attending and presenting at the recent ASAE  Diversity and Inclusion Conference.  Too few attended what was a rich educational experience, perhaps suggesting that we need to better integrate D&I thinking into every existing ASAE effort in addition to having freestanding spotlights.  Limited budgets may drive participants to the more functionally related conferences (Membership and Marketing, etc.) so let's make sure they get a healthy dose of D&I wherever they land.

Be affirmative for diversity when adding a new member to a team.
This statement from Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) may seem obvious, but have you really operationalized its intent?  When hiring new staff or selecting new volunteers we often fixate on how well their experiences and skills suit the position for which they are being considered.  More attention needs to be paid to what new perspectives and skills … what diversity … they can offer to the specific team they will be joining and the organization overall.  Innovation and fresh thinking comes from diverse perspectives so selecting someone who basically will think like everyone else doesn't raise your team's overall capabilities.

Link diversity to existing organizational strategy to realize greater commitment.
To make progress, you have to demonstrate how more D&I efforts will help achieve your organization's overall goals and objectives.  Don't isolate diversity; integrate it as both a means and an end to your organization's mission, vision, and strategy. 

And even if you have designated staff and volunteers focused on diversity and inclusion efforts, it must be an organizational imperative written into everyone's responsibilities.  D&I practitioners can enable and support others' efforts, not do the organization's D&I work on their own.  Metrics should be established and accountability engaged to ensure all programs, services, and personnel contribute to the organization's D&I results.

How are you influencing the profession or industry you represent to grow your future?
Again, a simple question, but one we don't answer and act on enough.  Too many organizations lament the lack of diversity among the existing ranks of their members and the near-term pool of potential ones.   Doing only that, however, doesn't change your future one iota.  Growing your future is a good metaphor to frame your efforts to make your profession more diverse and inclusive.  You're going to have to plant a lot of seeds.  Till soil in a lot of different places.  Pull many a weed.  Watch some of your efforts die out.  Be careful not to harvest too early.  You get the idea.

Build your capacity for challenging conversations and possible conflict.
Research from the NC State University study on diversity and inclusion in associations (funded by the ASAE Foundation) reveals that associations having a strong D&I emphasis demonstrate a high level of comfort with conflict and change.  Download the Executive Summary PDF.

This is important given that organizational discussions about diversity will engage and unveil individual comfort and experiences with differences.  Discomfort and conflict may result, so success will require a general safe climate among members of your community and a willingness to be transparent and uncomfortable in working through different perceptions and ideas about a topic that for some will be deeply personal.  Jamie Notter's excellent Associations Now article "The Truth as a Leadership Imperative" wold be good reading here.

The truth is that diversity is not a burning platform issue for many associations.
As a few D&I practitioners noted during the conference, many associations likely can chug along for 5, 10, or even 20 years and not find themselves in a complete crisis mode because of a lack of diversity and inclusion.  This means that leaders may not experience a sense of urgency to do much about diversity and inclusion, particularly if (1) there is not a cry for doing so from the membership, (2) efforts might be thought to be divisive or cause some conflict, and (3) success for any commitments is poorly defined.

If that describes your organization's current state, perhaps the metaphor I shared at the conference might assist you in obtaining commitment from your leadership.  Diversity and inclusion efforts can be thought of similar to planning for retirement, both require long-term investments to produce a major payoff at a future date.  Both compete for resources against what can seem like more pressing immediate needs.

Putting off saving for retirement until you are in your 30s or 40s puts you at a significant disadvantage.  You've lost years and years of compounding interest.  Better to save whatever you can every year, no matter how small an amount, to (1) get in the habit of setting aside resources for your future, and (2) making your money work for you over time.  Then constantly recalibrate the amount your are investing and the nature of your portfolio to reflect your changing goals and conditions in the marketplace.

I think the same practices and benefits hold true for D&I efforts.  If we wait until the moment our organizations—or the professions or industries they serve—are in crisis mode, no amount o massive investment will produce the results that we need.  Slow and steady will win the race.