Why diversity in all it’s many forms is essential for business competitiveness, community growth and organizational sustainability
Why would any business, municipal council, non-profit or volunteer driven organization diminish their effectiveness, reduce their viability and alienate customers or consumers?
Truth is that few would do so intentionally but far too many do so by falling into the pitfall of “going with what we know.”
Here in Nova Scotia as with many smaller communities across the country where diversity is slowly growing, this seems far more prevalent than cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton to name a few.
“The going with what we know” syndrome curtails growth at a time when growth is vital. It diminishes creative problem solving at a time when effective solutions are essential and it hinders innovation.
“Going with what we know,” leaves us on a gerbil wheel of endless, short-handed repetition, surprisingly, the solutions to this syndrome are easy to create and usually at no cost or low cost.
So, what is “going with what we know?”
It can be any homogeneous group that looks to similar group members to fill jobs, sit on boards of directors, volunteer, market to, speak to or engage and encourage participation from.
Put another way-if you have a group of purple people on your board of directors and they are all purple people of roughly the same social-economic and cultural background, that group will again and again approach similar purple people. Which means if there are green, yellow, blue and pink people in your community, they will usually not be approached or included, not because they are intentionally being excluded, but because it never enters the awareness of the purple group to reach out. The purple group, simply doesn’t see, what it doesn’t see.
Some common examples and consequences
Boards of Directors – most boards in small cities and communities tend to invite new board members from their circle of friends, colleagues and business acquaintances which is one reason why many non-profit and community boards remain active.
However, it the board itself isn’t very diverse and the individuals themselves don’t diverse networks what ends up happening is a board that is similar in age, culture and outlook and this becomes an repeating cycle. The consequence of this is over time, programs and services will become less responsive and relevant to an increasingly diverse community. It can also mean that volunteer recruitment is aimed at the same small group of people. Organizations with a more diverse and eclectic leadership will probably be more aware of the gaps in services and in a better position to meet those needs and also have greater scope to go after funding.
Volunteer recruitment – again, volunteers tend to be recruited from the ranks of people we know or are used to appealing to. From year-to-year, volunteer recruitment strategies usually don’t vary much and some strategies haven’t been revamped for years because dealing with daily operational needs puts things like re-assessing who and how volunteers are recruited gets set on the back-burner, plus there is often the underlying belief that if it’s working, why fix it.
Without some assessment on who makes up our volunteer bodies, it’s hard to see if there are problems and going to the same pool of potential volunteers means less volunteers and more volunteer burnout.
Volunteering is a mutually beneficial situation. The organization is able to carry out its mandate and the volunteer gains valuable and sometimes invaluable work experience and skills, self-confidence and the opportunity for a reference they can put on their resumes.
There are large groups of untapped volunteers who would be amazing assets for an organization but who will also receive phenomenal value from the experience. Traditionally untapped groups are youth, people with different abilities, First Nations, under-represented groups like low income, minorities, immigrants and New Canadians.
City/village councils and committees – pretty similar situation to boards and volunteer recruitment but with far larger and far reaching impact on community members. Lack of representation means a lack of engagement and that isn’t good for the growth, sustainability or responsiveness of a community. Plus healthy and robust civic engagement benefits all of us.
Having a mixed group that includes youth (15-25), low income, immigrants, LGBT, seniors, people with different abilities and other under-represented groups gives a political body greater access to insights and solutions to community concerns and needs. The more diverse a group is, the more creative and innovative their solutions will be.
Marketing imagery- This is another large area that is often neglected because lack of insight and awareness. In a country as multicultural as Canada and in a growing diverse community as Halifax where a lot of time and money are being spent on promoting the city as “A great place to live,” most marketing material seems aimed at only one group, young and seemingly of Northern European descent.
When we look at imagery we have a visceral reaction to it. So if we don’t see ourselves at all, we tend to exclude ourselves. Whether we are marketing a store or a service if our imagery doesn’t include diversity, that diversity will go where they feel represented, wanted and valued. When it comes to the bottom line, companies and businesses are hurting themselves and their long-term sustainability by not objectively looking at their marketing materials and asking themselves who are they missing and who do they want to attract as new users.
A few examples for low-cost solutions
- Assess, assess and re-assess with a critical eye and if need be with outside, objective help to determine who are the people that make up your board, committee, marketing team, hiring team, volunteer recruitment team. Make a list of who is missing and who you want to include. Knowing is the biggest first hurdle in creating change and all you need is paper, pencil, a good cup of coffee/tea and a hour to consciously think it through.
- Develop new and dynamic strategies for engagement of different groups. For some, sending an e-mail is a great way to engage, but for other groups, especially groups that often feel marginalized an e-mail or a phone call is not going to elicit the response you might want and will often go ignored. For these groups, it’s important to invest face-to-face time in building relationships. Sure it takes some time out of a busy schedule, but the long-term value is well, invaluable.
- Inventory your individual networks-how diverse are they? Does your network include different genders, ages, languages, ethnic diversity? If not, than you can be more aware of who you tend to approach and make a concerted effort to approach people and groups that you haven’t in the past.
- If you’re not sure how to approach a different group, invest some time in making one contact and asking them for ideas and suggestions on the best way to engage that community. Make sure the engagement is from the ground-up and not top down.
- Re-assess the venues that you use for meeting, gatherings or events – will some people find them intimidating, too formal, to outside their comfort zone. Play with using different venues in different communities and notice what worked and what didn’t. It’s too easy to use the same formats and same types of processes even those we see evidence that they may not be working any more. It’s about trying new things to find new ways and better ways of engaging people.
- Hire a different type of consultant and ask them how they have engaged diverse groups in the past, what was their success rate or how are they going to approach it differently this time. Don’t keep going to the same people just because you know them because you will likely keep getting the same results.
- Above all do not say...”yes but…” As soon as you put the BUT in there all is lost and closed down. Yes, But.., says it can’t be done, that it’s been done in the past and didn’t work so there is no sense in doing that again. Yes, But… kills creative problem solving and drowns ideas. Change the “yes, but…” to “how are we going to do this?” “What is a solution?” “Is the timing and group dynamics better to try this again?” Sometimes, by simply taking the negative out of the equation and only focusing on solutions, the solutions are there and often those solutions are simple even for complex issues, cost effective in a time of hard economics and possible even with limited time and staff. More than anything, the solutions come with a change of attitude and increased awareness.
Here are a few useful resources and articles. And, to keep the pool of ideas growing, please leave a comment and share with me and us, some of the new and innovative ways that you are engaging new groups and what you have learned through the process.
McKinsey Global Institute has an interesting article that puts projected skilled labour shortages in perspective and is, in a sense, a warning for creative solutions sooner, rather than later.