As associations welcome an increasingly diverse membership into the fold, the way they communicate is crucial. This is why many organizations are adopting more inclusive language that better reflects the whole community.
As the world’s population becomes more diverse across every demographic category, so do the people who belong to your association. To ensure that all members feel included, associations have been making adjustments to the language they use.
While some view language changes as superficial or go so far as to label them pejoratively as “virtue signaling,” experts say the shift is critical.
“It’s important to remember that communication defines the identity of the organization,” says Nneka Logan, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication at Virginia Tech. “That is why it is important to communicate in an inclusive way. The things you say define you as an organization and can affect the way you are perceived in the public, by members and nonmembers.”
Associations that are looking to adopt more inclusive language typically have a mission to be inclusive, according to communications expert Beth Hampton. “I’ve been a marketer for a number of associations,” says Hampton, who is currently vice president of marketing and communications at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry. “I think it is important for associations to reflect their audiences in materials and communications. It can be age, it can be racial, or it can be gender.”
Recognizing that inclusive language is important, associations have adopted new communications strategies to better interact with and welcome their changing membership.
The changes that associations are making vary—some are incorporating gender-neutral pronouns and language, while others are revamping their codes of conduct to ensure that language respectful of diversity and others’ humanity is used at all times.
At the Association of Moving Image Archivists, the membership has shifted in recent years from primarily white men who had entered the field via apprenticeships to increasingly diverse men and women joining the profession through traditional academic programs. To adapt, AMIA adopted several changes, including giving attendees at its conferences the option to include pronouns on their name badges so that colleagues would know how to address them.
After seeing and hearing that members were communicating in ways that others found problematic, the group also adopted a member code of conduct to outline expectations for how members treat others—in deed and language.
“We wanted to have something in writing to foster cooperation and professional development of our members,” says Andrea Leigh, an AMIA board member. “To ask people to be more respectful of different points of view and perspectives.”
AMIA regularly reminds members about its code, with the goal that inclusivity becomes second nature. “It’s promoted and communicated to new committee chairs and incoming members,” Leigh says. “Eventually, it becomes part of the culture of your organization. We’re still not quite there, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction.”
Brooke Leonard, chief of staff at the American Alliance of Museums, says demographic shifts are not only changing the association’s membership but also the audiences AAM’s members serve. “We are simultaneously trying to make ourselves more inclusive for our own staff and more inclusive for our board and our members—and be a resource as they look to serve their own communities,” Leonard says.
AAM has adopted inclusive communication strategies in many areas, including allowing members to include the gender-neutral Mx. designation on their profiles and acknowledging Native American land origination at conferences in U.S. cities.
Andrew Plumley, AAM’s director of inclusion, says conflict can occur without some basic consensus on language. “For as many people who are in the room, there are as many definitions for terms,” Plumley says. “One way to get the process going is to define the terms, so they know how you’re defining those words, and that everybody has the same understanding when you’re talking.”
How to Get Started: Expert recommendations for introducing inclusive language
Begin with an assessment. “I think the best way to start would be with a communication audit focusing on inclusivity,” says Nneka Logan, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication at Virginia Tech. “Bring in someone from the outside who doesn’t have the institutional knowledge and biases, so they see as an outsider looking in.”
Link change to your mission. Beth Hampton, vice president of marketing and communications at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, says your inclusive communications strategy should dovetail with your mission. “It’s an ongoing process,” she says. “Let’s not do this for a one-year effort. It’s a philosophy. Are we adhering to what we aspire to be part of our mission?”
Introduce changes thoughtfully. “You want to be sensitive to your existing members,” Logan says. “You want to introduce changes in a way that seems genuine to your organization, so it doesn’t just seem like you’re jumping on the bandwagon.” Association peers who have made similar changes are a good place to seek advice.
Start small. You don’t need to dive in with a large, organization-wide effort. “Whatever you can do, you should do,” says Andrew Plumley, director of inclusion at the American Alliance of Museums. “The way to make change is to build momentum and get smaller wins. The more momentum you can build internally is where you should start the work.”
Be ready for resistance. As with any new initiative, expect some people to resist these changes. “There are few things that are universal, but pushback is one of them,” Logan says. “It’s good to put a little bit of preplanning into that, when you anticipate what problems will occur. Think about the types of people who might be put off by a change. Take that feedback, and then figure out how you communicate to those people.”
For example, the group’s code of conduct asks members not to “deadname” or “misgender” people. But understanding that not everyone is familiar with those words, AAM provides a clear definition for each, explaining that deadnaming means referring to a transgender person using their pre-transition name, and misgendering is the practice of intentionally using the wrong pronoun (for example, referring to a “she” as “they”).
In addition, AAM has several other documents that define terms, including its Facing Change report, which defines broad diversity and inclusion terms, and Welcoming Guidelines for Museums, which includes a glossary of terms to help people be respectful of those in the LGBTQ community. That glossary, in addition to defining terms like “biphobia,” “cisgender,” and “demisexual,” explains which terms are considered problematic or defamatory.
Sometimes adopting inclusive language benefits more than an association’s members. When the American Psychological Association’s style guide, APA Style, adopted the singular “they” last year to improve inclusivity, the change affected all scholarly research and academic works.
“Affirming and validating are at the core of our mission to ensure that we are upholding everyone’s well-being,” says Emily Ayubi, director of APA Style. “We spent a lot of time listening to what was going on with the community, and we decided it was time for us to take a stand.”
While the organization made headlines when it adopted “they”—Merriam-Webster even declared the singular “they” its word of the year—Ayubi views the change as a natural step for the organization. “APA Style has a longstanding history of embracing inclusive language,” she says. “It makes sure that everyone sees themselves in academic work. Our endorsement of the singular ‘they’ is to enable and encourage people to write with respect.”
Beyond gender diversity, APA Style also covers language related to age, disability, racial and ethnic identity, and sexual orientation. “The underlying theme is to be respectful and affirming,” Ayubi says.
Using inclusive language benefits the whole organization because people who feel included are more engaged, says Virginia Tech’s Logan.
“You get so much more out of people when they feel they are included,” she says. “If they identify with that organization because they are included, that should build stronger member relations and even grow your membership because they’re talking to their friends about you in a positive way. It strengthens the positive feelings about that organization, and that should transfer to member engagement and increased productivity and volunteerism.”
Ultimately, inclusive communication strategies make the point that everyone matters. “The work we are doing is not to exclude anyone,” says AAM’s Leonard. “It is to make sure that everyone feels valued in the work they do and included.”
Shared Content, ASAE Associations Now, Author Rasheeda Childres