Best Practices for (re)Starting Your DEI Initiatives

best practices

By Rhonda Payne, CAE

FOR LONG TIME equity advocates, the fight to eliminate bias, discrimination, and exclusion is nothing new. My parents fought this fight, as did their parents and grandparents before them. That I picked up the baton early in my career was hardly surprising.

Having supported several hundred trade and professional membership associations during my 30+ year career in nonprofit leadership, I’m often asked to provide strategic counsel on what it takes to walk the talk. Here is some of my favorite advice to start (or restart) your organization’s DEI initiatives this year.

Change Starts at the Top

We’ve heard it before, and its irrefutable: The transformational change required for any successful organizational initiative must start at the top. Boards can and do have a direct impact on the advancement of DEI. Board members and executive directors/CEOs should begin the organizational work of DEI by paying attention to the culture in the boardroom itself. Is the board itself diverse? If not, what is being done to understand why and what to do about that? Are the board, executive committee, and chair’s practices inclusive? Do non-majority directors have equal power to constructively contribute, challenge, and shape the organization’s positions, priorities, and perspectives. Does the board agenda consistently allocate directors’ time and energies to DEI strategies and impact? Your board and executive team’s composition sends a clear message about what and who your association values. It will be nearly impossible to credibly advance (or defend) a commitment diversity if the association’s leadership ranks are perceived as homogenous.

DEI proficiency is the new, must-have association CEO competency, and may be confidently cultivated for both current and future roles. As CEO, you’ll set the tone in how you partner with your board in adopting and operationalizing strategic priorities for your organization and industry. Position yourself as the top champion, speaking and writing publicly about the importance of equity and diversity internally and externally.

Consider resourcing support to normalize an annual leadership composition audit for your board, accelerate your pipeline for underrepresented executive talent on your leadership team, and guide your board in adopting requirements for a critical mass of different viewpoints in governance that reflect the fullness of your industry and communities your industry serves.

Board Consensus Isn’t Commitment

So, your board has made a commitment to DEI, now what? Well, that depends on what you mean by “commitment.” Consensus that concepts of DEI are important can be a helpful precursor, but shared agreement is not actually the outcome you’re looking for if you hope to achieve meaningful progress.

Surrendering to the majority opinions may keep everyone smiling in consensus on the outside is very common, especially with topics that are hard to examine. However, this type of consensus rarely translates to clear agreement on specific strategic goals, nor the plan of action that will need to be resourced to achieve them. If that’s where your board is today, their real work, and yours, is just beginning.

The truth is, DEI matters to everyone and just like any other strategy your board may consider prioritizing for the business, consensus is nice but not required to make a commitment. The initiatives and activities that make the most sense for your staff or committee are downstream from prioritization by your board level. Pre-planning steps for your DEI initiative that meaningfully involve the board and senior staff are critical to moving the needle and achieving impact.

Your next best step may be supporting your board in discovering or navigating different perspectives and conflicting ideas about DEI in order for them to demonstrate commitment (the action, not the feeling) by adopting a unified strategic objective.

Resource the Initiative

What is the scope of your initiative? Will we focus equity and inclusion for your association staff? Are we addressing the membership of the association, which doesn’t currently reflect the wider industry or broader population in some way? Are we concerned with helping member organizations attract and retain a more diverse talent pool? Are you directing the efforts of members in an industry uniquely positioned to influence social justice on a societal scale nationally or globally?

With a clear scope and strategy, you’ll want to allocate adequate resources. Presuming that the needed expertise to guide the efforts is already in house among existing staff and member volunteers is naïve. That approach wouldn’t fly with any other major organizational transformations, and it won’t fly here. You’ll need qualified human resources with the capacity to do so leading this work. Avoid the common misstep of tasking existing staff with doing this work gratis in their spare time (who’s got that?), especially those who belong to communities likely to be experiencing harm, exclusion, or lack of safety because of an aspect of their identity. I have lots of experience flying in planes, but that doesn’t mean I can build one or fly it. The same is true here. Even if you can compensate existing staff to take on more responsibilities, do not assume that their passion for the topic or their lived experience is the same as DE&I expertise as a practitioner.

If you do not have a DEI practitioner on staff, you might fund a new position or consider hiring a consultant or fractional diversity officer to assist with leading, planning and implementation.

Create a Strategy-Aligned Roadmap

It’s natural to wish moving the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion was fast, inexpensive, and easy. If it was, I doubt we’d still be having this conversation for decades (and centuries). The truth is, no two associations and industries are the same. There is no prêt-à-porter action plan I can recommend if you’re serious about outcomes like equity, accessibility, justice, and belonging. Try not to be seduced by promises to the contrary or succumb to box checking if you’re hoping to avoid becoming part of diversity theater. There are an infinite number of activities any association and its members might undertake on personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels.

In my work, our primary focus is always going to be on maximum impact. That means encouraging a focus on practices and policies at the systemic end of this continuum to address root-causes of inequity. Wherever your organization focuses its efforts, remember that setting DEI goals and establishing tactics to reach them is a lot like designing a new product. Its starts with empathy. We must seek guidance from the communities our activities are meant to serve, and in some cases, they are not in the room (or the membership) yet. When that happens, stop. Go find them.

Once you have the data to identify needs or areas of concern (read that again) it’s time to work with your committee to establish a strategy-aligned DEI roadmap. Your roadmap and work plan should be custom to your organization, tied to the facts of your industry, workforce, membership, staff, policies, practices, strategic plan, and resourced capacity.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

It’s hard setting DEI goals, and even harder achieving them. It takes introspection, mining data in new ways, uncomfortable conversations, overhauling old processes, and exposing the organization to the risk of getting it wrong (the other “f” word, failure) to get it right. Operationalizing the initiative through the leadership and support of a dedicated committee, workgroup, or task force can be a great help for most associations. The key is ensuring that the volunteer group has a clear charge from the board that is aligned with the organization’s strategic priorities. Only then should they begin to establish and advance the tactical work plan. Make sure they are set up to succeed, are themselves diverse and inclusive, and have the necessary authority to effect change.

DEI barriers are not the same for every group. Caution your committee against taking on too much at once and ensure their work plan takes into consideration what is actually feasible within the resources allocated. The wide vision of DEI will almost certainly leave most committees spread too thin if they try to address all things and all communities at once. I could tell you so many stories about organizations mobilized by a call for racial equity now checking the box with watered down commitments to diversity of thought. The result can be little or no progress over time.

Drive impact by helping your committee or task force prioritize and implement feasible tactics that address specific, measurable, challenges or opportunities surfaced by initial research and data. Evaluate progress regularly, iterate, and stay the course.

Beware Business Case Backlash

When you think about the year ahead, what’s the priority, your association’s north start? What matters most? If you thought about your people – your staff, members, or workforce – you’re not alone. I’ve asked thousands of people that question during workshops and the top response is definitive. People first, right?! Why, then, when we talk about the imperative to be inclusive as leaders and create equitable organizations with diverse teams do so many of us lose our resolve and focus instead on the “business case”?

I focus on inclusive language a lot in my work, and I know for a fact that how an organization talks about diversity can have a major impact on its ability to achieve its diversity goals. There are very few people who haven’t heard praise for the business case, that research-based rhetoric about productivity, innovation, retention, or decision making that justifies diversity efforts on the grounds that it benefits our organization’s bottom line. There’s also what I call the “compliance” case, essentially the other side of the same profitability coin that focused us on avoiding financial consequences.

As a Black and woman-owned business, it never ceases surprise me when a potential client asks Flock Theory to help justify why equity, safety, and inclusion makes profitable business sense. It can be true (but isn’t frictionless and isn’t always) but, so what?!

First, its lazy. We’ve known of the business case for diversity empirically for decades and Google is your friend. Second, it’s offensive, dehumanizing and sees underrepresented people as a means to an end (not because of their expertise in the role, but because of their lived experiences). Linking DEI to your profits is a turnoff to people in underrepresented communities your association is probably trying to attract, and reduces belonging, trust, and retention among people already on your team. Third, when the justification for investing in DEI is a promise of financial gains, year-over-year support from leadership is contingent on revenue growth. Without it, which is very possible especially in the early years, people are likely to withdraw their support.

Most organizations don’t feel the need to advance a business case for other core values like innovation, resilience, or integrity yet lengthy DEI justifications are the norm for about 80% of businesses today according to Flock Theory’s research. Less than 5% of businesses we’ve surveyed explicitly advance what we call the “justice case” for DEI. While it can be the case, equity doesn’t have to be profitable to employers to be the right thing.

When speak about our DEI commitments using language that makes a “business case” we are centering the profitability over people. Instead, why not shape your language around the justice case. People, not profits. To miss that nuance is a big misstep that can derail your best efforts with your workforce and the communities you serve.

Getting started with DEI strategy, for whatever reason, is its own success. Congrats on joining the movement. Instead of being complicit in inequity, your association is stepping up to actively do the work of DEI. We’ve known of the business case for diversity empirically for decades yet knowing hasn’t moved the needle and there’s the rub. Representation, belonging, and equity are not the norm because focusing on profits instead of people doesn’t work. Sometimes, our bias to action puts the cart before the horse with ineffective measures and today is a great day to know better and do better. If your efforts have rolled to a standstill, have lost support, or are backfiring you can turn it around with a hard reset. Focus on doing it right, for the right reasons, and you won’t be sorry. If you need support to know what that looks like and how to navigate your blockers, get some. See you on the field, I’m rooting for you.

rhonda payne

Rhonda Payne, CAE (she/her) is a sought-after equity advocate, organizational capacity builder, and events strategist with nationally recognized expertise in associations, adult education, and DEI. For 30+ years, including roles as ASAE Chief Learning Officer and ICSC global vice president, she has added value as a trusted advisor from C-Suite to B-Suite. She serves on the board of NYSAE and SocialOffset.org, and founded Flock Theory to advance equity in expertise through advisory, executive talent, speaker, and community services.

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