IN HOLLYWOOD'S TAKE OF THE WIZARD OF OZ, DOROTHY IMAGINES A PLACE OVER THE RAINBOW where the diverse inhabitants occasionally break into song and dance beneath blue, cloudless skies. Sure they dodge a pesky witch now and then, but for the most part they live in idyllic, albeit segregated, bliss.

Although things at this end of the rainbow look a tad less rosy, we may yet find that land where "dreams that you dare to dream really do come true." Determining how close we come to reaching that place is a business movement based on selfish, and therefore promising, self-interest. It's called diversity.

Diversity, which has its root in social causes such as equality, justice, and cultural harmony, has become a bottom-line issue. Shifts in the global marketplace have made the concept a compelling and challenging change agent. These days, the inclination toward good corporate citizenship has become entwined with matters of corporate competence, such as money management, competitiveness, and market relevance.

"Without diversity, an organization risks homogeny and stagnation," says Horacio Gavilan, vice president of the Association Management Group, Inc., McLean, Virginia. "As the marketplace becomes increasingly global and competition grows, organizations without diversity initiatives will find themselves missing out on opportunities, unable to generate new solutions to challenges."

Observes Larry D. Alexander, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, sponsor of ASAE's Diversity Executive Leadership Program: "The quality of ideas and content generated by your [association's] workforce improves with a diverse culture. You are able to gain different perspectives when you have the input of multiple points of view."

For instance, Alexander typically uses staff members as focus groups for critiquing the bureau's advertising efforts. "On one occasion, something that was thought to be humorous by some proved to be offensive to others, and alterations were made as a direct result of that feedback," he says. And, after staff pointed out that the people shown in a sales video didn't represent Detroit's diversity, it was edited to be more accurate.

Defining diversity

"Diversity is not just a word or a person or a value," says Velma Hart, CAE, national finance director and chief financial officer for AMVETS National Headquarters in Lanham, Maryland, and past chair of ASAE's Diversity Committee. "It is the juice that infuses words, people, and values to propel an organization to greatness."

And although much conversation about diversity centers on affirmative action, diversity is not about affirmative action or quotas. "Diversity extends beyond just visible differences, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and age to encompass personality, work style, and other traits," says Gavilan. "Diversity brings an organization a wider range of resources, skills, ideas, and energy."

In other words, diversity is a complex, organizational approach to practicing inclusivity while recognizing and valuing differences. It is both an ethical and business essential.

According to Hart, associations should view diversity as a critical business strategy--and not just because corporate America has taken note of its importance. "Solid values permeate to all operational levels, directly affecting an organization's customer service behaviors," she says. "Our values affect interactions with others and can make or break our business."

Making the case

"Given all we know about the changing demographics in America, the globalization of many businesses, and the huge amount of discretionary spending dollars in the pockets of segments of our population that have traditionally been ignored, it is imperative that we recognize the importance of including [these segments] in our customer bases," says Gayle L. Brock, diversity manager at AARP, Washington, D.C., and vice chair of ASAE's Diversity Committee.

For instance, as reported by Leading Futurists, LLC, Washington, D.C., in From Scan to Plan: Integrating Trends Into the Strategy-Making Process (2003, ASAE Foundation), the combined Hispanic/Latino and Asian share of the U.S. population is projected to increase to 19 percent by 2020. As a result, many U.S regions will become primarily Spanish-speaking. In addition, according to the 2000 census, I out of 10 U.S. inhabitants at the millennium's start had been born in another country; during the next 10 years, new immigrants will represent half of the total U.S. population growth.

Diversity leaders forecast a dim future for businesses that do not respond to these sweeping demographic and social changes, which bring new languages, cultures, values, and attitudes into both the workplace and the marketplace.

"Organizations without diversity initiatives risk missed business opportunities, a diminished customer base, loss of market share, and a decreased ability to attract talented job applicants," says Detroit's Alexander.

In addition, organizations that fail to develop diversity initiatives are likely to see their leadership rolls shrivel. Kim Canavan Jones, CAE, president, Jones International, Silver Spring, Maryland, and chair of ASAE's Diversity Committee, predicts that these organizations "will have an aging volunteer leadership that does not renew itself, because there is no inclusiveness and a lack of partnership opportunities with other organizations."

To steer clear of these consequences, you'll need a plan--a formal program that doesn't treat diversity as a separate issue but addresses it at every level of the organization.

Taking action

Just as a strategic plan has no value unless it is implemented, a diversity plan must also have assignments, timelines, fund allocations, and regular evaluations to work. Here are some ways to bring your diversity initiative to life:

Ask the right questions. Before developing a diversity program, conduct an organizational self-examination. "Seek input from all levels within your association, and if necessary, hire a consultant to help," advises Joyce Wright Harris, CAE, director of administrative services, Ohio College Association, Columbus. Questions to ask:

* Is diversity reflected at all levels of employment, as well as on our board? If not, why not?

* Do we use services provided by professionals and businesses from diverse backgrounds?

* What practices and procedures do we need to change to become a more diverse organization?

Take a comprehensive approach. Once you've gathered some honest answers, draft a diversity statement and develop activities that support and spread the statement's philosophy throughout your association.

"Diversity has to touch every aspect of the organization's operations," says Jones. "This includes, but is not limited to, governance, recruitment, retention, employment, outreach, marketing, program planning, volunteerism, volunteer recognition, communications, and internal operations."

As an example, she points to a national health-related organization based in Virginia. In the mid-1990s, this group implemented a long-term strategic planning process to build cultural competencies within its programming, staff, and chapters. The planning process included training for all board members and staff.

"The organization provides frequent updates on best practices in inclusion, and this has helped to keep diversity on the radar screen as the volunteer and paid leadership recruit new people," Jones explains. "This organization is now conducting ongoing training and development for its members. In fact, it has created a tool kit to help define some of the steps in the diversity-building process."

Spread the word from top to bottom. A diversity initiative will not work in isolation. It must be fused into the organization's bone structure, from the top down. If the chief staff and elected officers don't support it, plan implementation will be unlikely. So start with a written statement of commitment and support from the CEO and board chair.

It is not enough to tell people that diversity is important. Delve deeper into the concept, share stories that underscore the need for insight and empathy, and discuss how dominant societal norms influence our perceptions, policies, and work habits.

Sharing real-life anecdotes--the female executive whose male secretary was given the check at a meal function, an attendee at an international conference who could not read the on-site signs--help us all develop a greater sensitivity to and appreciation of differences.

At Able Management Solutions, for example, we recently conducted a one-day, in-house workshop on customer service that focused on how sensitivity and diversity awareness make us more effective communicators with both our external and internal customers.

Our staff meetings also offer opportunities to discuss how to embody diversity in both principle and practice. These staff discussions often lead to a moment of truth--the realization that problems or difficulties with clients or service providers may, in part, be traced to a lack of appreciation for another's culture.

Acknowledge the many dimensions of diversity. Think of inclusivity, rather than focusing solely on race, ethnicity, gender, or issues of the haves versus the have-nots.

"An organization has to engage everyone in its diversity efforts and initiatives. We have to move past the notion that diversity is only about women and people who are characterized as minorities," says Norma Bartrum, senior manager of diversity activities, American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, Virginia.

ASCE does this by including the white men within its membership in all of its diversity efforts. (See "Diversity for All" in the July 2003 issue of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT for a description of ASCE's efforts.) "Diversity for us goes beyond race and gender. We also emphasize the inclusion of various backgrounds, skills, and experiences in our definition," Bartrum adds.

Continue to make the sale. To prevail, diversity programs require advocates who will spread the message of diversity's significance throughout the business world amd society as a whole. By sharing their diversity experiences, these evangelists help drive activities--and maintain momentum--at every level of the organization.

"Unfortunately, diversity still has to be sold. People put up guards when they hear the words diversity and inclusiveness," says Janet L. Johnson, director of development, Ohio Travel Association, Columbus.

Looking at outcomes

A test of a successful diversity program: endurance. If your initiative loses steam after a scholarship fund or a special awards program is installed, it's time to consider a refit.

"The program should not be working itself out of a job," says Jones, ASAE's Diversity Committee chair. "It must be ongoing, because the global culture will continue to change and grow. [The initiative] never ends, only reinvents itself to address new challenges."

To endure, a diversity program must not only gain acceptance throughout the organization but also include specific goals. "Understanding what you want will usually drive when you want it," says AMVETS's Hart.

AARP, for example, has at least one diversity-related goal for each of the four dials or areas on its executive dashboard--a graphic depiction of its strategic priorities. The "member growth and experience" dial includes goals for member acquisition and retention as well as for use and satisfaction levels for AARP products and services by specifically identified population segments. "In this way, we know that we are truly achieving our association's mission," he adds.

As another example, he points to the "people" dial, which includes conducting an employee opinion survey. "We monitor the survey results by demographic subgroups--race or ethnicity, geographic location, and exempt or nonexempt [employment status], among others--to ensure that the improvements we make to our systems and processes result in increased satisfaction across our workforce rather than only in certain employee groups," says Brock. "We strive to improve the ratings for specifically identified items by at least a standard deviation; in this way, we have more than anecdotal information to inform our initiatives."

At AMVETS, the phrase "slowly but surely" may best describe the organization's move toward greater diversity. Hart reports: "It is a slow process for us, but we are already seeing results with the active involvement of younger members and those representing a wide variety of ethnic groups."

As AARP, AMVETS, and other organizations refine diversity plans that are durable, far-reaching, and effective, they are creating models that the rest of us can use to develop and measure the success of our own programs. Then the association community as a whole can pave that yellow brick road to profit by simultaneously celebrating and setting aside our differences.

Sammi Soutar, CAE, is the president and founder of Able Management Solutions, Inc., an association management company based in Columbus, Ohio. E-mail: ss@ablemgt.com.

BY SAMMI SOUTAR, CAE

PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FOLEY
COPYRIGHT 2004 American Society of Association Executives