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How to Advance Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in Professional Membership Associations

By Guest Author February 26, 2021

By: Ruth Bolle, Managing Partner of Research by Design

February is Black History Month for a number of countries across the world, including the United States of America, Germany, and France. In the U.K. and Hungary, it’s LGBTQ+ History Month.

While Black History Month — and other history months — is observed around the world, advancing equality, diversity, and inclusion have never been more important in this moment of global reckoning. But are we truly progressing?

While the intent may be present, not all professional associations are collecting data that allows them to establish how representative their profession is against the population or how representative their membership is of the profession. The data simply isn’t available or collectable for some and considered too expensive or unwarrantedly intrusive for others.

Employees having conversation while wearing masks partnered with Research by Design on a new research report about advancing equality, diversity, and inclusion in professional membership associations.

If equality and diversity is thus difficult to measure, how on earth then do professional associations assess whether their profession and their membership offer is inclusive?

Research by Design (RbD) and collaborated on a recently-published research report — Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Progressing the Agenda in Professional Membership Associations — which aims to clarify the definitions of equality, diversity, and inclusion. To summarise the report’s definitions of each:

  • Equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents. 
  • Diversity is the presence and recognition of difference.
  • Inclusion is the acceptance of difference; acknowledging people, making them feel welcome and valued, giving them a sense of belonging, and allowing them to be their true authentic self. It is a culture, not an initiative.

An organisation may be diverse, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s inclusive. 

It is important to look closely at the differences between diversity and inclusion. Our research indicates that increasing diversity is just the start — inclusion is what reaps rewards. A study of social workers in the United States reported that increased job satisfaction was closely linked to actionable efforts of inclusion in organisational processes. Racial composition of the organisation did not predict job satisfaction. Thus, while intent to increase diversity is an important first step, efforts that promote inclusion are more impactful in retaining and engaging employees. 

And herein lies the challenge: while improvement in diversity can be identified by measuring membership composition, any movement on feelings of inclusion and belonging are much harder to measure.  This has framed our most recent discussions with clients on equality, diversity and inclusion and was a common question during our recent webinar with

RbD has worked with membership associations for almost three decades. Over this time, we have undertaken in-depth literature reviews on a number of issues and challenges facing associations, including member engagement; member value proposition design; and equality, diversity and inclusion. Our work on member engagement is especially relevant here — engagement is inextricably linked to inclusion.

Our definition of member engagement is “…the creation of a deep and meaningful relationship between the member and the organisation, that endures over time and drives renewal, upgrade decisions and advocacy. It goes beyond joining and includes member involvement and interactions as well as their connections with the organisation and its member community. Engaged members are aware and ‘get the bigger picture’; they are passionate and proud to be associated with the organisation.”

Our engagement model has four key components:

  • Behavioural characteristics: Tangible and measurable levels of activity and effort invested by members in their organisation.
  • Cognitive characteristics: Members’ awareness of and interest in their organisation and the extent to which they get the bigger picture.
  • Emotional characteristics: Feelings members have for their organisation, reflecting the depth and meaningfulness of the relationship.
  • Social characteristics: Members’ connectedness with both their organisation and other members.

Image of an engagement model

Research by Design’s Member Engagement Model.

These are the characteristics that professional associations should be measuring, alongside the statutory and non-statutory indicators of equality and diversity, to assess how truly diverse and inclusive they are.

Can you answer these questions, for example: To what extent do members feel a sense of belonging? How proud are members of their profession and their professional association? How passionate are members about their professional life and the contribution their professional association makes to that? How strong are connections between members?

So how to progress the equality, diversity, and inclusion agenda? Take a data-driven approach, ensure inclusion is being measured alongside diversity, and use the linkage between inclusion and engagement as a starting point. The sector can do great work in breaking down inequalities, we just need to have the right thinking and the right tools of measurement.

Want to get more insights? Download the report and watch the on-demand webinar about diversity and inclusion in professional membership associations.

About the Author

Ruth Bolle, Managing Partner of Research by Design (RbD)

Ruth is the Managing Partner of Research by Design (RbD). RbD specialises in research and consultancy in the membership sector. With clients including some of the largest Royal Colleges, Chartered Institutes, and trade unions in the UK, RbD’s experience is unsurpassed, and it is known for its passionate and authoritative voice in the sector. Ruth has over 18 years’ research experience. She has a particular interest in the strategic issues challenging membership organisations and making links between wider societal themes of belonging, inclusion and community.