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Groups hustle to create, fill diversity roles amid social change

Demand for DE&I executives spikes


Aug. 14, 2020
By William Ehart

Associations have long touted diversity and inclusion efforts. Unfortunately, talk has proved cheaper than action.

Now, the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent widespread, ongoing protests is being called a watershed moment in American society for awareness of and efforts against racial inequity. After an outpouring of unusually strong statements affirming Black Lives Matter—from groups that don’t typically comment on social issues—will associations’ internal staff policies match the external rhetoric?

Observers see signs of change: A sharp increase in association hiring of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) officers at high executive levels and much greater demand for related training and consulting services.

Author and speaker Patti Digh has been providing DE&I instruction to corporations and nonprofits for decades.

“It’s both heartening and disheartening to see that we’re having the same conversations we did in 1989, when I started doing this work,” Digh said. “But it feels like there’s a greater accountability (today). It seems people are holding leadership to a higher standard. Groups of workers are making demands of their leadership in a way that I haven’t seen before. It’s a revolutionary moment—it can be.”

Lisa Brown Alexander, CEO of human resources and executive recruiting firm Nonprofit HR, said the business of DE&I services and recruiting is “bursting at the seams.” Nonprofit HR just this month created a diversity consulting practice, accelerating a move that had been planned for early next year.

“The difference is largely around the intensity of the demand,” Alexander said. “George Floyd’s murder was a pivotal point in history. … We are seeing a tremendous surge in demand from both current clients and new clients, folks who’ve never reached out to us before, to give support, advice and guidance on implementing diversity and inclusion strategies.

“There are certainly more opportunities than people right now (to fill DE&I roles),” she said. Candidates with a relevant background should take advantage of the chance to advance and boost their paychecks, Alexander said.
“(Associations) need to be prepared to pay top dollar for people who have deep experience in the space,” she said. “Many more opportunities have emerged in the last eight to 10 weeks than ever before.”

Many associations recently have hired new DE&I officers. Others have advertised new positions this year, including the American Bankers Association, the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the American Institute of Physics.


Breaking the hiring freeze

The ABA hired Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Naomi Mercer last year, largely to promote diversity within the industry. Its plan to hire a vice president to work under her and focus on staff had been put on hold as part of a pandemic-related hiring freeze, but now ABA has decided to make the hire.

ABA CEO Rob Nichols noted that he formed a diversity and inclusion task force in 2017.

“We’ve been doing a lot internally in terms of our own labor force,” he said. “Our metrics compared to other associations are rather positive. Roughly 40% of my colleagues at ABA are nonwhite, roughly 25% are Black. So, our own labor force looks like the United States of America, but we certainly have more to do.”

Mercer said Floyd’s killing convinced ABA it needed to fill the internal vice president role.

“We realized we needed to establish greater psychological safety for our Black employees, in particular, but also an inclusion mechanism for everyone,” Mercer said. “It became critical that we reconsider the hiring freeze.”

Of course, hiring DE&I executives is one thing. Giving them sufficient authority is another.

“It’s important that the person in that role have real power inside the organization and access to the senior team, if not straight to the CEO,” Digh said. “Otherwise it becomes a vertical silo inside the organization. (Authority) has to go across all the different parts of the association—publications, meetings, finance—so that each of those directors or vice presidents also has accountability for D&I, with measurable goals, ideally tied to pay.”

Mercer reports directly to ABA’s Chief Member Engagement Officer James Erdington, but also reports to Nichols through his senior adviser, Laena Fallon.

“I am in a member-focused role, so it’s important that our chief of membership engagement is up to speed on what we’re doing in the membership space,” Mercer said. “But occasionally, there is a need for additional resources, so that dotted line to the executive office was also very important.”

Once ABA’s staff returns to the office, the new vice president of DE&I will have a desk in the HR department, but report to Mercer.

“That role needs to be embedded with HR,” Mercer said. “But they also have a line to the executive office, just like I do, because occasionally you need the decision-making power and the resources that you can only get through the executive office.”

‘Everyone is accountable’

Samira Salem, promoted July 20 to vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at CUNA, reports to COO Jill Tomalin. But CEO Jim Nussle has promised her full support, going so far as to give her his mobile number with permission to call any time, she told CEO Update.

“What’s really important is that, while I am going to be leading this work, everyone is accountable when it comes to achieving D&I goals,” Salem said. “It is an enterprise-wide effort.”

Less than a month into her role, Salem is still building a road map for her work. But one important element will be creating employee resource groups, she said. Different groups would represent various constituencies, such as African American, Latino and LGBTQ staff. The leaders of the resource groups will form a DE&I advisory group, Salem said.

“It’s an opportunity to build community and share experiences,” she said. “We want to ensure that they have a voice in the DE&I work that’s being done. Who better to tell us, ‘Yes, you’re getting it right,’ or, ‘This is your blind spot.’”

Lofty statements

A key driver of the DE&I hiring and programming is the realization by associations that they must walk the talk.

“One of the things that’s happened, and has resulted in a backlash, is that some organizations have taken very public, very glossy positions and have wonderful statements, and then their staff begin to speak out about their internal practices,” Alexander said.

“You don’t want to be the association that hires an internal person, but your external practices reflect something entirely different,” she said. “Conversely, you don’t want to have lofty PR statements and hashtag Black Lives Matter while your internal culture and talent-management systems do not support equity, inclusion and diversity.”

She advises engaging with staff candidly.

“Be honest, be authentic about where you are in your journey, and then spend some time listening not just to your staff of color, but to anyone within your organization whose voice you perhaps have not been hearing,” Alexander said. “Anyone who is not holding social power within your organization who is making an important contribution. Be honest, listen, and then act, in that order.”