Friday, November 21, 2008

Diversity: Not Just An Economic Imperative

I spent the early part of this week with a group of other association executives. We're all members of a board of directors of a professional association of association executives, so the information and ideas we shared were especially relevant to our day-to-day work lives.

While we discussed many issues of substance, the one that I found particularly appealing was one that has been challenging associations for years: diversity. How do we, as association executives, encourage diversification within the ranks of our own staff and within the ranks of the associations we manage? How do we encourage our members to recognize and appreciate and truly value diversity in their own organizations? And why should we?

First and foremost, it became apparent that we must all understand just what we mean when we say "diversity." We mean, of course, diversity of race and ethnicity. We mean diversity of gender. But we should mean much more when discussing and planning for diversity: foundation of religious belief or nonbelief; sexual orientation; language; culture; experience.

Certain aspects of diversity in one association can be meaningless in another. For example, an interest in geographic diversity among the members of a statewide association might be irrelevant to a local association in a big city; diversity of organizational size may be important in a trade association representing an entire industry, but irrelevant to a national professional association representing individual practitioners of a specific discipline.

Back to the reasons for promoting diversity. The primary reason I have for appreciating diversity is the simple fact that, in my view, diversity opens our eyes to many different perspectives. Aside from being fundamentally the right thing to do in terms of encouraging minorities and women to have full and complete access to social structures that have long held them at bay, encouraging diversity enriches our own experience. While the economic value of reaching a diverse audience certainly has its place among the reasons to value diversity, it is by no means the most important one (in my view). Frankly, an organization that promotes racial and ethnic and gender and other forms of diversity as engines of economic advancement is unlikely to get much support from the groups it ostensibly hopes to encourage to participate.

Encouraging diversity along the lines of economic and social and geographic and ethnic and many other attributes helps open our minds to looking at the world through multiple lenses. It makes us all better people. And in my opinion, it makes associations better organizations.

The question many association executives have, of course, is "how do I get more diversity?" That is not a rhetorical question; it can be tough to attract a diverse audience to a specific discipline or a specific workplace. Many of today's largest and most successful businesses have long used an aggressive strategy, for example, of actively recruiting the "best and the brightest" minority students from colleges and universities. Associations are rarely able to compete economically with large companies, so they find themselves wanting for suitable candidates for jobs.

One of the solutions that was suggested during my meetings earlier this week was a simple one: identify one or more individuals from various diverse populations and ask them for help in identifying sources of talent or sources of members. Another solution was just a simple: tell the world that you value and seek diversity. People tend to gravitate to places they know they will be welcome. And, finally, make sure your environment truly does value diversity. If your association says it seeks diversity, on the one hand, but doesn't behave in ways that support that position, you will do your organization more harm that good.

I think it's best to think about diversity from an individual perspective...and for me, that's MY individual perspective. I enjoy all sorts of ethnic foods and appreciate learning about them from people who grew up eating them. I prefer to have discussions about the differences between Guatemalan culture and Mexican culture with people who have lived in those cultures. I prefer spirited arguments about Islam and atheism and Christianity among people who live in and understand those belief systems. The same is true across all the "diversities" with which I deal. Some people don't have quite that level of inquisitiveness, so for them a more measured and slower approach might be best.

My bottom line is this: diversity is good. It enriches us. It makes us understand more about our world. And associations do those things, too. So associations should recognize and encourage diversity for their own selfish reasons, as well as the broader social reasons. We all benefit.

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