Valuing a Welcoming Environment Leads to More Open DEI Dialogue in the Boardroom

Association boards have a lot of responsibility–so how do we ensure they work DEI into everything they do?

By Mike Norbut, MSJ, MBA

Shot Of A Group Of Businesspeople Sitting Against An Orange Background

In any given meeting, a high-performing board will typically engage in three forms of governance: fiduciary (operational decision making), strategic (setting direction), and generative (horizon scanning and blue-sky discussions). Developing an agenda using this framework not only helps ensure that time-sensitive business items are addressed efficiently, but it also provides flexibility to engage the board in what it does best: providing high-level leadership for your association.

So, what mode of governance should a board be in when it discusses Welcoming Environment® topics? The answer, according to association executives, is any of the three, depending on where your organization may be on its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) journey. The keys are understanding the landscape among your members, assuming positive intent, creating an open and psychologically safe space in the boardroom to have the conversation, remaining consistent in your message and advancing the Welcoming Environment discussion in a progressive, productive fashion, they said.

Associations that prioritize a Welcoming Environment as a strategic imperative will likely find opportunities to brainstorm about initiatives and report on their progress during a typical meeting. However, organizations that have not previously engaged in those conversations may need to start with more fundamental discussions about an organization’s mission, vision, and values.

Shot of a group of businesspeople having a meeting in a modern officeYou don’t have to wait for a dedicated strategic planning retreat to open this conversation, staff leaders said. With our workplace and social environments changing rapidly, it’s natural to revisit these core topics on a regular basis. “Before you introduce the topic, have your board articulate your values as an organization,” said Khánh Vũ, CEO and executive director of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. “It’s easier to talk about it if it’s a value. You can define inclusion broadly as a starting point to get the board’s buy-in.”

It also helps to create an open dialogue that demystifies terminology and ensures organizational leaders are on the same page with their definitions. For example, the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons developed a diversity policy years ago, but a “level setting” conversation in 2020 helped to bring Welcoming Environment topics back into the forefront. Discussions helped to propel several initiatives such as a leadership development program that aims to support DEI efforts by creating an educational pathway to infuse the diversity and talent of future leaders into the ACFAS volunteer pipeline. 

Over time, ACFAS has incorporated DEI into its board discussions more organically, without having to specifically label them. As initiatives grow, board members and staff naturally discuss how they are reflecting the college’s value of diversity and inclusion, which states: “We are committed to fostering a community that promotes respect for diversity of opinion, inclusive of all origins with transparent and open communication.”

“It takes time,” said Patrick (PJ) Andrus, MBA, CAE, executive director of ACFAS. “We weren’t going to solve this in a 30-minute conversation or with one new initiative, which is why it was important to define the college’s core values in our strategic plan to serve as a constant touchpoint in deliberations.”

The Society of American Archivists also lists diversity and inclusion among its core values, and dives into a deeper explanation through a position statement describing these ideals. The society has a variety of committees, working groups and roundtables dedicated to DEI and accessibility, and it has “cross-pollinated” its DEI strategies with its strategic plan. The result is an ongoing dialogue with actions embedded in core principles and a clear direction for the organization.

“You won’t find SAA with two different documents,” said Jacqualine Price Osafo, MBA, CAE, the Society’s Executive Director. “(DEI) is not a strange conversation for us to have.”

While many associations have embraced and promoted a welcoming environment for decades, 2020 was a tipping point in terms of their activity and involvement in social justice activities. Shifting a board’s mentality from supporting diversity, equity and inclusion to actively advocating on behalf of historically marginalized, minoritized and excluded (HMME) populations required deeper and more transparent discussions that have helped to accelerate progress today, staff leaders said. In many cases, those discussions were uncomfortable as well; but leaders agree that it’s vital for boards to pursue these discussions in spite of personal discomfort.



The American Society of Human Genetics specifically identified diversity as a strategic imperative in 2019, which opened the door to a series of frank, open and self-reflecting discussions examining and wrestling with the Society’s history. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, these conversations shifted to action. While it’s not an end point, the tangible result of these discussions is a 42-page report released in January titled, “Facing Our History – Building an Equitable Future Initiative.” The report reckons with the connection between early human genetics research and the eugenics movement, which “exploited preexisting prejudices and promoted the idea that ‘unfitness’ was genetically determined,” according to the report. It also details how ASHG was silent, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, when human genetics were being used to perpetuate racist policies.

“The society affirmatively seeks to reckon with, and sincerely apologizes for, its involvement in and silence on the misuse of human genetics research to justify and contribute to injustices in all forms,” the ASHG board said in an accompanying statement. 

Along with this acknowledgement of the past, the ASHG board’s statement reflects a firm commitment to embracing diversity, equity and inclusion and proactively supporting initiatives to advance a welcoming environment moving forward. This has manifested in a variety of initiatives and discussions, including board composition and the addition of a dedicated DEI senior staff member who has expertise in diversity, inclusion and health equity.

“That (staff) addition has not only helped drive specific initiatives forward, but she also has helped us be more culturally competent overall,” said Mona Miller, MPP, ASHG chief executive officer. 

As DEI becomes more transcendent across organizations, its impact becomes more measurable and easier to report, staff leaders said. From member demographics data, leadership pipeline discussions or specific progress reports on new programs, there are myriad opportunities to include the welcoming environment value in a board meeting without specifically calling it out as a bullet point on the agenda.

Still, there are certain realities and frameworks that can impact an association’s progress, including the fact that leaders turn over and new members without the history of past discussions join the board every year. Many associations are working to address this through revisions to the board nomination and selection process, including replacing board elections with an uncontested slate chosen by a leadership development committee that vets and selects candidates based on competencies, skills and multi-representational factors that will ensure more diverse voices in the boardroom. As those changes take hold, there are ample opportunities for training on DEI topics, such as implicit bias, microaggressions and cultural awareness.

Associations also can make time for regular generative discussions related to perspectives and experiences. Wendy-Jo Toyama, MBA, FASAE, CAE, CEO, and executive director of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, has facilitated these discussions in both a staff leadership and consulting role. Asking a board member with a lived experience to share their perspectives can elevate awareness for other board members and provide a valuable discussion outlet for the leader who is sharing, she said. However, organizations also need to consider the impact of having someone share their experience if they are the only person in the room representing a certain perspective or population.

“It has been transformative,” she said. “You just don’t want to put that person on the spot. You want to ask that person in advance to make sure they’re comfortable.”

As boards continue on their DEI journeys, they will begin to recognize a cadence and rhythm to their welcoming environment discussions, staff executives said. However, it’s critical to remain vigilant. The 2021 ASAE Research study, “DEI and Association Governance Practices: Are Association Boards Embracing DEI? Practices and Plans for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Governance,” offered several important conclusions, including this: “Many boards lack a sense of urgency in addressing inclusion, perhaps believing current practices are sufficient.”

“When I speak on DEI, I use this quote to signify that if boards believe that DEI will happen organically, it will not,” said Debbie Trueblood, MSW, IOM, CAE, FASAE, a senior consultant with Association Management Center. “It must be intentional. I tell boards, ‘If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to get the same results in terms of board diversity.” 

Over time, vigilance can lead to a culture shift for an organization, as welcoming environment discussions are embedded across a board agenda. This in turn will open the door to new initiatives and a deeper investigation of how associations can continue to positively impact the communities they serve.

“It’s really threaded across our work,” Miller said. “We continue to ask ourselves, ‘Where are we uniquely positioned to make a difference? Where will we go deep?’”

About the Author

Mike is Vice President of Business Development for Association Management Center, based in Chicago. He is also a longtime member of Association Forum's Content Working Group.

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