Governance Articles

Is Your Board Turning A Blind Eye To Opportunity?

Some time ago I was asked to help develop nomination and election guidelines for an association's board and officers. The association had been losing members for some time. During this same period, a number of demographically-based associations had sprung up in the same field dedicated to Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, women and others. To help it focus on its problems and stop the membership drain, the association decided to shrink its large board, and that's where I came in.

Everything proceeded smoothly until I suggested having a board whose composition reflected its entire constituency - including its female and minority members. A furor erupted. I was accused of being politically correct or (horrors) a liberal. In the end, the board continued to be white and mostly male - with a couple of token white females thrown in. Not surprisingly, the membership drain continued.

For better or for worse, we appear to be in a period where there is a strong backlash against anything that smacks of affirmative action, even when it isn't. Even some leaders of minority groups are coming to believe that giving special consideration to the people they represent is counterproductive. But this viewpoint can blind an association to its vital interests.

The inescapable truth is that this diversity-rich nation is becoming even more so. By the middle of the 21st century a majority of your potential members and customers will be people of color. In many parts of the country the term "minority" is already outdated. For example, parts of California are now 40% Asian. And this doesn't include the fact that more than half of all white people are women, most of whom are now in the workforce. During the past three years, the number of businesses owned by women and people of color has increased by 170%.

To fail to bring representatives of these groups into your leadership deprives your association of insights into a rapidly growing part of your constituency and the richness of creative new ways of thinking. Ultimately it will deprive you of the members and customers that are the lifeblood of your association.

How should your association address the challenges and opportunities posed by the rapidly changing face of America? Here are some steps to consider.

    Get the facts. What is the composition of your membership? Of your potential membership? Of customers for your association's products and services? Of your members' customers and constituents?

    Audit yourself. Are there people in your leadership and on your staff who understand how your different constituencies think and act? This usually means that you need people in key association leadership roles who have roots in those populations.

    Set up a broad input process. Establish an organized method to secure a wide spectrum of views from all elements of your internal and external constituencies on an ongoing basis.

    Embed diversity in your planning. Make response to diversity challenges an integral part of your strategic plan, your workplan and your policies.

    Train, train, train. Humans are a tribal species and tend to be suspicious of those who are different from ourselves. If your association is to take advantage of all the opportunities offered by an increasingly diverse community, you will need an ongoing program to train people with different backgrounds to understand and work productively with each other.

    Mean what you say. There are many flowery policy statements about valuing each person for what he or she is but they are honored in the breach. Enforce your diversity policies.

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