How Associations Can Foster Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as an organizational and membership strategy is a priority for many associations today.

Many professionals are members of trade associations to expand their networks in a related industry. Their reasons for selecting one association over another varies from popularity to quality of education. Associations provide an easy way to identify the “whos” in performance, quality and/or expertise. They also encourage members to get more involved in activities that impact their industry, making associations a great breeding ground for leadership pipelines.

How Many Associations Are There?

The short answer: a lot.

According to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the number of associations grows at a healthy pace annually. As defined by ASAE, there are more than 1.6 million in the U.S.

ASAE is a membership organization of more than 44,000 association professionals and industry partners representing 7,400 organizations. Although there are many associations, there is a commonality between each of them that is often unaddressed like the proverbial elephant in the room—they lack in diversity of social identifiers across multiple dimensions.

The associations that have emerged as the most well-known have homogenous senior leadership teams, a board of directors and active volunteers. Their struggle to reflect the growing multicultural demographics of our society is deeper than their accessibility to professional development, business opportunities and expressed commitment to equal opportunity.

The reality is rooted in associations’ culture, business strategy and history. However, before we provide a historical context that is now being labeled “un-American,” we’ll give you the information to implement a DEI plan for your organization.

What Associations Can Do to Improve DEI

How can associations identify their need for a DEI plan prior to making changes?

The first step involves knowing the state of the association. An association may suffer from problems but implementing a “one-size-fits-all” DEI plan is not the solution.

Annual assessments that ask quantitative, qualitative and demographic questions may reveal different challenges for every organization. For example, a lack of innovation, respect and commitment are signs of an unhealthy culture where members generally lack a sense of inclusion.

According to a 2019 GrowthZone survey of association professionals reported by ASAE, there are five major challenges facing leaders of professional societies and trade associations that are rooted in powerful socio-economic trends. Participants ranked them as follows:

  • Funding: 12%
  • Attracting younger members: 13%
  • Communicating value proposition: 18%
  • Recruiting and retaining members: 28%
  • Member engagement: 29%


Annual dues to user fees: The concept of member-funded organizations has not evolved for over 100 years. The fundamental elements have remained the same, focused on knowledge, value-added services and certification. With the transition of membership base, a significant shift in the definition of membership value is occurring, requiring different membership models.

Attracting Younger Members

Presently, younger members want to be part of the decision-making process, lending their voices to social issues that resonate with them.

  • Google & YouTube -Versity (Online University): Younger members are more likely to question the value of annual dues for information they can access via searching the web and watching tutorials. They will no longer be willing to pay to belong. Offerings must peak their interests and add value to their existing knowledge base.
  • Value Proposition: Education is no longer a core value proposition—certification continues to lead as the glue encouraging members to stick with associations.
  • Time is Money: Disrupting members’ business without increasing business opportunities will lead to cancellations. Members are going through a challenging time in the economy; support, resources and guidance will set associations apart.

Retention and Recruitment

It’s more cost effective to retain than to recruit. Like any effective salesperson knows, the expenses associated with promotion, marketing and appealing to new members is much more costly than ensuring existing members are satisfied. As mentioned above, a solid value proposition creates organic marketing in that existing members become ambassadors.

Member Engagement

Members want to be heard and hear more viewpoints. Leaders must listen to and act on needs and expectations of their members. Unaddressed sub-issues that emanate from top needs impact an association’s ability to fully realize its strategic plan.

Ask more people to dance, decorate and deejay. One of the most-used analogies when discussing inclusion usually references the difference between being asked to the dance and being “asked to dance.” This comparison illustrates the importance of a culture that fosters belonging, authenticity and equity.

The First Steps

A commitment to DEI prior to taking the first step requires the comprehension of basic fundamentals, regardless of an organization’s size, industry or seniority of its leaders.

Seemingly elementary, definitions of the most used terms are key:

  • Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics or dimensions that make one individual or group different from another.
  • Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent full participation from individuals of marginalized groups.
  • Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group feels welcomed, are respected, supported and valued in the course of their full participation as members, partners and leaders.

The second step requires awareness supported by strategic alignment of a DEI plan with an organization’s core business strategy. As many studies have shown, the results of investing time, money and resources have an ROI of increased revenue, productivity and competitive edge.

Once terms are defined and leaders are committed to investing time, money and resources into what their assessments have revealed the additional fundamental steps include:

  • Develop a DEI strategic plan and define the business case: 69% of organizations lack a true diversity strategy, according to a new report by nonprofit.
  • Integrate adequately funded DEI programs into your business structure and processes.
  • Formalize basic policies including a well-defined supplier diversity practice.
  • Build relationships with external organizations and experts to achieve DEI goals.
  • Implement effective trainings for your team that go beyond classroom-style learning.

Lastly, evaluate, evaluate and evaluate!

Here are some actionable ways you can begin


  • Set up a diversity task force or committee.
  • Facilitate the development of an organizational DEI statement, vision and accountability, as well as the establishment of measurable objectives to achieve and communicate the vision as core to the organization’s viability and success.


  • Foster and model cultural competence, including knowledge of cultural practices and differences that demonstrates individual and group accountability to diversity among the stakeholders.
  • Commit funding for ongoing initiatives to strengthen organizational DEI at all levels.


  • Actively promote the value of DEI in processes, procedures and operations.
  • Proactively establish a Code of Conduct addressing principles of diversity and professionalism, including standards, behavior and consequences.
  • Develop, publish and actively promote dialogue about DEI. Include resources, articles and model leaders of diversity in your publications.
  • Foster involvement at all levels as a consistent practice. Invite leaders, members, volunteers, staff and community stakeholders to the table to help with decision making.
  • Ensure DEI initiatives are integrated through the organization’s strategic plan, continuously evaluate and transparently communicate results.


  • Eliminate barriers to full participation by all stakeholders. Do not hesitate on focusing on underrepresented populations.
  • Ensure that DEI knowledge experts, speakers and authors are aware of opportunities to be featured.
  • Address the challenges of recruiting diverse members for associations by partnering with local organizations, universities and chambers of commerce.
  • Encourage members to expand their networks, preferred vendor lists and RFP processes so they encourage inclusive practices across their partner ecosystem.


  • Avoid putting the burden on internal staff. Procure external consultants and facilitators to engage staff, leaders and members on topics of DEI.
  • Offer workshops, events and certifications focused on different dimensions of diversity.
  • Provide resources that promote self-guided learning and personal development.

Historical Context

Lastly, explore the historical context that is uncomfortable to discuss and is often labeled “political” or “un-American.”

The truth about history isn’t un-American at all. In fact, knowing the history will help leaders recognize inherent beliefs that are reflected in governance, leadership, talent, programs, outreach, supplier diversity, data, marketing and leadership application processes.

It will also give a deeper understanding about why BIPOC professionals feel more comfortable amongst their own without excluding anyone. When asked why she chooses one association over another, meetings professional Cherai Lewis replied, “Organizations like PCMA and MPI provide ample educational and professional resources that have directly impacted my career advancement, while affinity organizations like NCBMP (National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals) have supported both my professional advancement and personal development.

In addition, my cultural, mental and emotional needs are understood being in spaces with the tough love from mentors that I relate to like siblings—people who I’ve stayed in contact with over the last 20 years. Simply put, professionals like me are members of associations like NCBMP because it feeds my soul.”

Organizations that fed the souls of under-represented groups, especially Black professionals, formed in response to Jim Crow laws, the Black Codes and elevated civil rights protests in the 1960s, following the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many more leaders advocating for change.

Unwelcomed in newly minted, predominantly Euro-American hetero male-led organizations, women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ professionals formed their own associations.

Although centered around a singular dimension of diversity, the offerings provided by these associations are not easily replicated. Known as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), Special Interests or Affinity groups in many associations, these intentional siloes are positive in that they empower like-minded individuals to rally around a shared cause without having to code switch or accept inequality.

Unfortunately, segregation is as American as apple pie, and until we digest every slice, we won’t recognize the antiquated procedures, processes and practices that are informed by racist social attitudes of the past and present. The attempt to gloss over these truths in training material, workshops and events will result in unreconciled trauma that manifest in organizational culture.

Implementation and establishment of an appropriate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan in your association is challenging and will take consistent commitment. (Remember, this is a marathon not a sprint.)

Associations that are genuinely ready to improve representation in leadership must pledge to acknowledge the work that must be done, take accountability for the current landscape, assess how barriers influence the climate and take action toward real change.

“When inclusion is the behavior, Diversity will be the result.” –Zoe Moore

Shared Content, Meetings Today, Authors Greg DeShields, CHE, CDE and Zoe Moore

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