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Association Forum’s Welcoming Environment® Program Helps Associations Act on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Goals

By Kelly Clark • April 14, 2021

Knowing you should support diversity, equity and inclusion is one thing. Knowing how to actively support fellow community members from different backgrounds is another. Through its Welcoming Environment® (WE) initiative, Association Forum is equipping members with the tools they need to drive more meaningful engagement with all members of their association community.

The association created WE as an umbrella approach for responding to members’ need for greater education about diversity, equity and inclusion topics. Because associations are groups of people joined for a collective purpose, this focus on inclusion became a salient imperative for Association Forum’s board several years ago. In 2015, the board formally committed to support the cause.

“We define Welcoming Environment® as the creation of a sense of belonging and connectedness that engages individuals in an authentic manner,” said Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Association Forum. “When we engage others in an authentic and respectful way, we’re creating an environment where creativity and productivity increase, and uniqueness is valued,” she continued.

Not only that, but increasing the diversity of cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity leads to better employee retention, stronger revenue, and better financial outcomes.

A framework for diversity, equity and inclusion work

WE presents a framework for DEI work based in three areas: convening, content and consultation. Convening represents the stage on which associations engage members and the larger association community in what Mason calls “courageous conversations” about race, gender, ethnicity and other topics that affect human interactions. Convening is where innovations develop and refine into best practices, she explained.

Content includes training about DEI topics as well as research into how organizations act on DEI ideas. Association Forum has drawn in several strategic partners to help them develop a large collection of content hosted in its magazine, online and through in-person presentations and workshops.

Consultation involves leveraging experts to help organizations assess and advance their DEI initiatives. Association Forum recommends consultants to help members strategically work though their organizations’ strengths and areas for improvement.

The WE curriculum consists of written, audiovisual and in-person content.

Association Forum has curated a collection of written articles from national publications about DEI topics as well as recommended book and webinar lists. Visitors to the Welcoming Environment® resource hub can watch recorded Conversation Circles that feature association leaders discussing topics such as Race and Rhetoric, LGBTQ+ in the Workplace, and the Impact of Race on Women’s Leadership Journeys. Association Forum has posted business tool samples such as inclusivity statements and equity policy guides for associations to reference as they create their own versions. There are resources for board and staff culture, the business case for DEI, and advancing Black leaders.

Turning DEI discussions into action

These resources have grown out of six years’ worth of work by the WE committee as well as the broader Association Forum membership, which staff has worked with through conversations, focus groups and surveys.

“The challenge we want to address is that associations are having discussions about DEI topics but are often not taking action,” Mason said. “The Welcoming Environment® guide gives them a way to get out of the crossroads of aspiration and action.”

In 2020, Association Forum engaged research partner McKinley Advisors to conduct a major survey in partnership with 12 associations to find out how members make evidence-based decisions and how WE could aid in the decision-making process. The analysis of the key research trends and data from the survey gave Association Forum insight into the state of equity and inclusion in member organizations. The association plans to use the 2020 survey as a baseline for annual surveys that will continue to examine how members address DEI issues.

The ultimate goal of these annual surveys is to give Association Forum a continuously current platform to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in a way that members can take action in their organizations. Plans for a toolkit with conversation guides for members, boards and staff are in the works, as well as an assessment that will help associations evaluate where their organization rests with regard to DEI issues and what work it may need to do to fill the gaps between perception and reality. Additionally, Association Forum is developing a WE certificate program to drive deeper engagement and increase understanding and knowledge of DEI topics among association professionals. The program will cover five modules and result in a certificate and digital badge.

“Our vision with the certificate program is that we would be able to measure the impact of Welcoming Environment® and the organizations that host certified individuals,” Mason explained. “Creating a sense of belonging that advances all business objectives depends upon individuals understanding their impact and developing organizational cultures that support DEI.”

Welcoming Environment® summit

In May, Association Forum plans to host a WE summit that will offer educational workshops and speakers. This national summit will expand upon the regional WE summits the association began hosting in 2016.

Association Forum has also created Identity-Based Advisory Groups to provide guidance on how to advance Welcoming Environment® strategies that will enrich member experiences, professional development, leadership development, cultural awareness, and competency. The advisory groups will assist with membership outreach, engagement and retention, and ensuring representation throughout the association.

Association Forum will initially launch four advisory groups: Latinx, LGBTQI+, BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) and AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander). The LatinX Advisory Group launched on April 1, 2021. Each advisory group will consist of six to seven members led by two co-chairs with an assigned liaison from the Association Forum Board of Directors.

“Whether it’s a workplace, a school, or a new place of worship, feeling a deep sense of support from the moment you arrive results in an even deeper sense of appreciation that leads individuals to feel like they can grow there,” Mason said. “As a result, they feel like they can make a greater contribution. We all want that. Welcoming Environment® will give associations the tools to achieve that momentum.”