Friday, August 26, 2011

Diversity in Association Management - the Association Subculture Weighs In

Yes, I still think Jeffrey Cufaude's recent post on diversity was brilliant and brave.  I have no problem supporting a colleague and friend who has taken a bold and impassioned stand on an issue they care about.  I am also impressed with some of the comments and discussion - (Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant in particular),  Elizabeth Engels related post and other comments I have read.  I'm sure there are more comments on the way.

I am not going to get into a huge discussion about race relations in America.  There are others far more savvy than I on these topics.  For example - here is a great post from Melissa Harris-Perry - American History Lessons.   I am also not going to pretend that I am particularly good at handling topics like this and I have my own lenses to look through.  I don't always get this one right.  K?  K. (Although I do tackle LBGTQ issues from time to time - see our need for more executive transvestites :D)

But here are some of the issues I've noticed over this series of posts that I feel most like weighing in on.

The word diversity.  I believe it was Joe Gerstandt who wrote a fantastic post taking issue with the word "diversity" in the past and has encouraged us to use "difference."  (I was looking for the post in particular that I was thinking of - Joe if you read this could you add in comments if I am remembering correctly?) Not all diversity is racial but we tend to default to that definition when using the term.  There are all kinds of different folks out there to get to.  This singular discussion happened to get framed in those terms, but we all know it's bigger than just that.

We tend to gravitate to "safe" discussions.  It's easy to admit we should be more diverse.  It's more difficult to actively seek solutions to the problem.  But the hardest part of all is finding the time to develop a sophisticated understanding of the historical, economic, political and cultural roots of the issues.

Associations aren't a particularly diverse workforce. I just interviewed 200 association executives in my most recent research project.  Off the top of my head, I believe one was African-American and one would be considered Pacific-Islander.   We recognize the need for more difference, but right now the pipeline isn't as full as it should/could be.  And that recognition alone isn't going to be enough to change that.

Part of it is the lack of an official career pathway.  We have not established a formal body of knowledge or developed the relationships we need to have in the K-12 and post-secondary community in order to raise awareness about our profession as a career.  In large part, we use an organic recruitment process that many times results in our pulling potential job candidates from our own social networks that may be more homogenous than we might wish.

We asked, but they still said no.  I hear this from boards of directors all the time.  The issue is more complex than that.  Can we really use our own lenses to "fix the problem" by assuming "asking" is all it takes?  Race relations in the United States have a long, complicated history.  "The ask" isn't always the answer and the fact that we heard "no" doesn't get us off the hook.

We have no other options.  This is an easy one to fall into.  We all routinely get caught in our own mental models of what the "parameters" of any particular problem are.  Remember, every variable you choose to set is up for grabs.  Need a more diverse membership?  It's going to take more than a brochure with the "big four" smiling on the front of it to convince a population you are a safe place to be in.

I respect everyone involved in this particular little controversy and nobody in their right mind would think that any one of them has done anything intentional or isn't somehow vested in changing the composition of our associations.  I am convinced we all have everyone's best interests at heart.

But let's keep having the discussion whenever and wherever it rears it's head.  We can't progress if we don't carefully confront.  We have to be free to raise issues in this association community which I believe truly values conversation.


  1. Thanks for your support and for contributing to, and expanding, an important conversation.

  2. Great thoughts on this, Shelly. I enjoyed the posts you linked to within the post, as well.

  3. Thanks for the comments, I appreciate that you took the time to stop by....


  4. Wonderful post Shelly, kudos to both you and Jeffrey for using your platforms to champion this issue. I have really enjoyed learning about the association world over the past couple of years and am thankful for the connections that I have made and the opportunities that I have had to contribute to several conferences. I look forward to getting even more involved moving forward, and I have been trying to get my head around the approach to diversity and seems like it is approached as "a program" ...championed by a few, occasionally a priority, generally not. Not consistently a foundational component of how things get done. And, this is certainly not unique to the association world, but there is tremendous opportunity here to do something significant. Some of the solutions certainly exist on the organizational / institutional level and take the form of priorities, practices, policies but there are also things that we can do as individuals to be part of the way that we can turn the association social space into a more robust intersection of identity, perspective, and experience is to make sure that we are doing that with our own networks of relationships. I also think that having real clarity and consistency in the language and logic being use is critical...this is often overlooked as being far too basic in nature for educated and professional people, but I think that much of the difficulty we have in discussing diversity and inclusion has its roots in the fact that while we are using the same words, we are all talking about different things. Not sure which post you were looking for Shelly, but a few things that I have written around this issue:

  5. Glad you chimes in and shared the links Joe. I do think that overall in the association community D&I (the currently preferred ASAE term) is at the programmatic level. In some organizations it has moved well beyond that as is simply a part of their existence, but that is definitely the minority of organizations I've encountered.

    Thanks for sharing the links to your resources. I'm sure they will prove helpful to me on my own learning journey because I wholeheartedly concur that we each need to have our own relationships be a robust intersection of identity, perspective, and experience. Time and inertia sometimes work against that.

  6. Thank you for rocking the links Joe! I appreciate it.....

    Jeffrey - I like the way you used the imagery of a "robust intersection of identity....etc"....


  7. Shelly: In case it wasn't clear that "robust" language comes from the wise and wonderful Joe Gernstandt.


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