Authored by Marlis Korber

Before I purchased an association management company (AMC), I owned and ran a pizzeria. In that business, you have your basic ingredients: mozzarella cheese, the dough, the pizza sauce, maybe a little pepperoni. Of course, you offer a lot of extras: sausage, olives, even anchovies.

Some pizzerias often more exotic combinations that include pineapple.

(Talking about pineapple on pizza can be even more divisive than politics, so we will avoid those subjects altogether.)

In the pizza business, your reputation isn’t built on the extras.

It’s built on the basics.

Does your pizza sauce taste like the real deal, or does it taste like you pulled it off a shelf in a grocery store? Does your crust have the right mix of crunchy and chewy? Do you sprinkle on too much, too little, or just the right amount of cheese?

The same is true for associations.

The success of any membership organization is built on the basics.

Do members derive a return on their membership investment? Do they get resources and education that furthers their career? Can they find opportunities through their association that they can’t find anywhere else? If the answer is no, all the marketing in the world won’t help.

And there is another basic ingredient for your association’s success: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Diversity has been an association buzzword for as long as “buzzword” has been a buzzword. For the past three decades, consultants have been helping association boards of directors meet their diversity goals by hosting a once-a-year diversity workshop.

That’s not the type of DEI we’re talking about.

The last year has seen new emphasis placed on the need to include more BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) individuals in positions of leadership in all levels of society. That includes boards of directors. The same is true for individuals from the LGBTQ+ community. Associations simply cannot succeed without leadership that accurately reflects modern membership.

Of course, these talking points aren’t new.

The difference between now and then?

Increased consumer activism.

If your association isn’t including underrepresented groups in your leadership ranks, there is a good chance a group of vocal members will force the issue by doing what all reformers do: shining a little sunlight on the problem. Your association’s lack of DEI could become a talking point that drives existing and potential members away.

That isn’t the reason real DEI is a staple ingredient to association success.

It’s because it’s simply the right thing to do, right?

Wrong.

Well, not completely wrong. It is the right thing to do—but that is not why your association should make DEI a priority. The reason traditionally underrepresented groups must be included in your association’s volunteer and paid leadership relates to your bottom line.

Why?

For years associations have had discussions about how they could better reach potential millennial and Gen Z members. Regardless of their political affiliation, those two generations are far more progressive on issues relating to race, sexuality, and gender. Those generations also (rightly) expect the groups and organizations they join to meet them on their turf. They expect leadership to speak in a language that makes them feel welcome and affirmed. They expect to see people from a broad range of communities and identities in positions of power and influence. Your association will struggle to attract its next generation of membership if it hasn’t made diversity and inclusion part of its basic recipe.

In the grand scheme of things, the moral imperative for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive association is more important than the business imperative.

But like pizzerias, associations are businesses. They have to take in more money than they spend, and all the moral imperative in the world won’t matter if a lack of funds forces your board to close shop—and that is the grim path ahead for associations without representation in their leadership ranks.

Do the right thing.

And do the smart thing.

If you haven’t already, make sure your association has made DEI a priority.

Representation is not the anchovy of your association.

It’s the cheese.


If you’re not sure how to get started, seek out help. Our company, for the first time, hired outside consultants to help educate and train our staff on issues surrounding DEI. This isn’t all we’re doing, but it’s a start. We’re making it a priority to explore how we can confront issues around DEI so we can lead change in our personal lives and especially in our work. If you and your board of directors need advice, resources, or have questions you’d like to ask, feel free to reach out.

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