Association Forum's Holiday Showcase Closes a Hard Year With Hope, Stresses Diversity

The digital gathering, produced by Northstar, offered education and networking, with an emphasis on inclusion initiatives.

Photo Credit: Robert Kneschke for Adobe Stock

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot welcomed registrants to Association Forum's annual Holiday Showcase on Tuesday, noting that the two-day conference and exhibition has been held in the Windy City for the past 32 years. While this year's gathering is virtual, she said, "We look forward to welcoming you back to Chicago next year."

The show opened with a keynote on the vital importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to the future of associations, presented by speaker, author and researcher Raven Solomon. The United States is growing more diverse by the decade, she said, and associations must prioritize DE&I to survive and thrive in the present and future. 

The digital event, produced by Northstar Meetings Group, was themed "Connecting the Association Community." (For more information about Northstar's digital event production services, contact Joe D'Andrea at [email protected].) It was, in fact, a community effort: Industry organizations including the American Society of Association Executives, Destinations International, the Events Industry Council, IMEX America, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, and the U.S. Travel Association, provided educational content and networking sessions. 

A total of 29 educational sessions and three keynote presentations were offered over the course of the program, featuring such industry leaders as Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, who noted that the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated developments that were already happening in our industry. Rather than focusing on channels of distribution, now is the time to focus on the purpose of our organizations and build from there, he told participants in a breakout session on "Rising to the Challenge."

The Diversity Imperative

Raven Solomon's opening keynote underscored the importance of diversity initiatives to the survival of our associations. Studies assessing where we are now as an industry reveal plenty of room for improvement. Solomon cited forthcoming research by McKinsey & Company, which asked association staff and members to rate their organization's level of success in integrating DE&I and creating a welcoming environment. Only 27 percent consider their organizations very or extremely successful. When questioned whether their associations effectively foster inclusivity at conferences, meetings and events, about half of respondents said yes.

The top three barriers cited were: finding qualified diverse candidates, other strategic initiatives taking precedence, and the time required to pursue DE&I objectives.

For associations, diversity initiatives should have three components, said Solomon: 

  • Connecting with the purpose of DE&I. Understand why this work matters; why it matters to you; why it matters to your organization; and, ultimately, why it matters to our society.
  • Connecting with diverse people. Does your circle of contacts include people who are different than you? "Diverse simply means different," said Solomon. "It doesn't mean LGBTQIA, doesn't mean women, doesn't mean Black, etc. You need to commit to connecting with people who are different than you."
  • Connecting diverse people. "This is where we really begin to be intentional about creating equity," she said. "Think about how you can connect diverse people to opportunity, to resources, to access and to your organization."

The Business Case for Diversity

Gender and ethnic diversity are closely correlated with business profitability, studies demonstrate. A study conducted by McKinsey found that gender-diverse companies are 21 percent more likely to earn more revenue than national averages for their industries. The same study found that ethnically and racially diverse companies are 33 percent more likely to outperform industry norms on profitability. 

Understanding the business case is the smart thing to do, as it improves business performance. It's also important to acknowledge the moral case, said Solomon: It's the right thing to do. 

  • For associations, workplace diversity also means board diversity. How and where do you recruit? What are the requirements to be on your board? Are they inclusive? What are the expectations? Where does your candidate pool come from for staff and for your board? Think beyond recruitment: Is your culture inclusive enough to support and retain diverse talent? 
  • Now consider membership diversity. How do you reach new members? Do our conferences offer diverse experiences? Who plans them? Is that group diverse? Is diversity, equity and inclusion, a strategic imperative for us? And if it's not, the why not.

Taking Action

Creating a diverse and inclusive environment means actively leveraging our influence, our privilege and our power to create equity in the way we build and execute policies and processes, and the way we distribute resources, access and opportunity. Take initiative in these key areas, Solomon suggested. 

  • Hire, mentor and promote diverse talent. Create opportunities for more diverse members to participate in association leadership. While respondents to the McKinsey study agree that this is important, only 21 percent say their associations have actually done it. 
  • Commit to supplier diversity. As part of that effort, be sure to have diverse speakers and presenters at your meetings and events. Fewer than half of associations have accomplished this.  
  • Amplify unrepresented voices in your organization. This can apply to the differently abled, LGBTQIA+ folks, people of color and others. "If we lack diversity among our decision-makers, how do we make sure that we have those voices represented?" Solomon asked. "This calls for us to pass the mic, share the platform and let everyone speak up."