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Survey aims to give groups guidance on inclusion efforts

12 associations participate in Welcoming Environment study

Mason Hockman
Mason (left) and Hockman

June 19, 2020
By Lori Sharn

Association Forum is releasing a new study on progress toward more diversity, equity and inclusion at associations, surveying both members and staff about how their organizations are doing. One key finding: A disconnect between what respondents identified as necessary DE&I strategies and whether these strategies had been implemented.

“There’s just really significant gaps in what responders say what is most necessary and what’s been done,” said Jon Hockman, principal at McKinley Advisors, which conducted the research for Association Forum. “We have a long way to go. We are not doing what folks say needs to happen.”

The survey results are being released as protesters across the nation seek an end to racial injustice, and as support surges for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The conversation the world is having right now is important, and this fits right in,” said Association Forum CEO Michelle Mason.

The Forum is a Chicago-based membership organization for association professionals with nearly 4,000 members. The Forum launched a Welcoming Environment initiative in 2014 as a way to engage members around creating a sense of belonging and connectedness at their organizations, with an emphasis on valuing and respecting uniqueness.

The survey is aimed at giving members more information to make evidence-based decisions, Mason said. An executive summary will be available in July. Association Forum holds its annual Welcoming Environment Summit—virtually this year—July 22.

The research project was supported financially by 12 association co-sponsors, who all participated in the study. Members were surveyed at 10 of the associations, resulting in thousands of responses. Staff were surveyd at the other two groups, resulting in 134 unique responses—a much smaller sample from which to draw insights.  Each participating association will receive a custom benchmarking report.

The strategy cited as necessary most often by association members—by 64% of respondents—was “having diverse speakers/presenters at conferences, meetings and events.” Yet only 46% of respondents said that strategy had already been implemented at the association.

The gap was even bigger for creating “opportunities for more diverse members to participate in association leadership.” Fifty-four percent of members cited this as a necessary strategy, but 21% said this had not been implemented.

Of association staff surveyed, 67% cited “providing training for managers on how to be inclusive leaders” as necessary. But only 41% of staff said that strategy had been implemented. 

“Organizations are at different places in this journey,” Hockman said. “We weren’t surprised by that.  It just affirmed that folks are learning and growing.”

The 12 participating associations represented a cross section of fields, including health care, government and other industries. Some groups were international in scope, others national or statewide. Operating budgets and number of staff ranged from small to large.

More key findings: 
—Both members and staff had “relatively neutral” opinions on the success of their associations at integrating diversity, equity and inclusion through its overall practices, with nearly one-fourth of members being unsure of the level of success.

—Seventy-six percent of members said they agree or strongly agree that they feel welcome in locations where the association holds meetings and events, and 68% agree or strongly agree that they feel included in all association events they attend or participate in.

—Only 46% of members said they agree or strongly agree that “inclusion is integrated into everyday behaviors in my association.”

—Association members reported low feelings of inclusion at their own workplaces. Women, minorities, millennials and people with disabilities were all more likely to report witnessing or experiencing bias, discrimination or harassment in their workplaces. 

—Forty-one percent of staffers surveyed said “finding qualified diverse employees” was a barrier to integrating diversity, equity and inclusion at their associations. The other barriers cited most often were “other competing strategic priorities” by 36% of staff, and “the time needed for investment” by 34% of staff.

Brown Gaus
Brown (left) and Gaus
Shared challenges
Geoffrey Brown is board chair of Association Forum and CEO of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.
“We kept hearing from our peers, ‘Point us in the right direction. How do we do this?’”  Brown said. Association executives also “wanted some direction as to how do I stack up against the association down the street. That research basis is going to allow us to have a much more meaningful and practical conversation within the Forum community.”

NAPFA’s members were among those surveyed both about the association and their workplaces. One area that NAPFA has struggled with is diversifying its volunteer leadership, Brown said.
“It was interesting that that was a challenge that’s shared across the board even for professions more diverse than financial planning,” Brown said.
Chicago-based NAPFA has been working with its members to give them information on making their workplaces more inclusive.  The association has been working on a toolkit with both printed material and some short videos to help with everything from the language to use when writing a job posting, marketing materials, on the website and all the way through the hiring process and developing and retaining talent.

The association is planning to hold another webinar on unconscious bias. About 300 people participated in a webinar on the topic two years ago—about 10% of the membership at the time, Brown said. The interest “was eye-opening and it meant that we needed to do more.”

When hiring for NAPFA’s staff, Brown said the slate of candidates brought in for interviews must include racial or ethnic diversity and gender diversity. His staff of 11 is majority female and includes people with different racial and ethnic groups. Brown is African American.
“We just want to see the candidates because the resume is a screen but it can’t be the only screen,” Brown said. “Some people may not present themselves on paper. You also have to dig a little bit deeper. We tend to look outside of the association community when seeking out talent. That broadens our opportunity to find a more diverse talent pool.”

Moving the dial
Milwaukee-based Association of Equipment Manufacturers participated in the staff side of the study. AEM has 106 staff, including 11 in the Washington, D.C., office, said Judy Gaus, vice president of human resources and operations. She said 85% of staff participated.

“We wanted to learn more specifically what they were thinking,” Gaus said. “We were able to see some of the questions that were going to be included in the survey prior to it being issued. It went far more in-depth than any conversations we have had with staff.”

The survey will help form an action plan. Gaus said AEM has seen the data from its employees’ responses but has not yet received more information about the comments made by staffers. Results were both heartening and sobering. For example, 85% of respondents strongly or very strongly agreed that leadership fosters a welcoming environment.

“That was helpful to know, but on the other hand, what about the other 15% who didn’t feel that way?  So once we learn more about the concepts and comments (from the survey) we can really dig in and say … how do we start to move the dial?”

Gaus said AEM has been talking about diversity and inclusion at the staff level for about five years. In the last 18 months, AEM has been working more on diversity and inclusion beyond staff, in areas such as volunteer leadership and participation in meetings and events.

AEM staff is very diverse from a gender perspective and has been making incremental improvements in hiring from more diverse backgrounds, Gaus said. One strategy that helps with this is a robust internship program—a talent pipeline for the organization—with 40% of interns coming from diverse backgrounds. AEM currently has 10 interns.

“There clearly are opportunities for us to increase awareness among staff, for us to be more intentional with respect to diversity,” Gaus said. “You want to create an environment where you’re not only able to recruit staff but that once you get them, you keep them.”

DEI chart