A Groundbreaking DEI Study to Inform and Compel Action

A Groundbreaking DEI Study to Inform and Compel Action
Welcoming Environment powered by Association Forum.


The Association Forum (Forum) has a long history of working to build a more inclusive organization and community. In 2015, the Forum titled its initiative Welcoming Environment®, emphasizing that the concept would be broader than traditional DEI because it would encompass both efforts and results.

The WE® initiative gained momentum, but in late 2018, the Forum took its initiative further. It launched a groundbreaking research study that provided a snapshot of the current state of DEI efforts — data and insights that were otherwise missing from the association sector. The data would provide participating organizations with key indicators of their progress and performance around DEI, establish benchmarks, and stimulate critical conversations and actions across the broader sector.

Project Highlights

  • Analysis of key research data and trends gave the Forum and participating organizations insight into the state of DEI in their own associations, comparative benchmarks from the community, and gaps in perceptions between staff and members.
  • New data gave associations a platform to learn about the state of DEI within the community and engage in honest dialogue, share knowledge, and take action.
  • The Forum advanced its goal of elevating WE® as a more prominent topic in the minds and work of members and the broader community, putting a spotlight on both actions and outcomes.


A Strategic Commitment and an Opportune Moment

The Association Forum has a long history of advocating for and supporting DEI, but the events of 2020 accelerated the organization’s commitment — and members’ calls — for more support. The Forum recognized that associations were at a critical crossroads between aspiration and action, and the association needed to respond quickly to support members in their journeys. More importantly, the Forum was committed to making outcomes as much a part of the conversation and planning as tactics. To deliver on this commitment, it would need data.

Strategy and Solution

Addressing the Lack of DEI Data and Insights

“Although we tried to have conversations with staff, they were certainly not to the level to which these [survey questions] touched…it creates a great starting place for us to build and grow.”

– Judy Gaus, SHRM-SCP, Vice President of HR and Operations, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

The Forum reached out to McKinley to conduct a review of past DEI research and literature and quickly learned that associations faced a substantive gap. To address the lack of data and insights, the Forum and McKinley launched a groundbreaking qualitative and quantitative study. The project included a systematic research approach with telephone interviews and two surveys: one aimed at staff and one at members. This allowed McKinley to analyze the two distinct audiences and show where perceptions of success deviated. The findings of the study revealed trends in a few key areas:

  • Overall views on how successfully associations have advanced DEI within their own organizations and collectively as an industry.
  • Gaps between staff perceptions of DEI performance and perceptions of the broader membership on key inclusion behaviors and indicators.
  • Key challenges that associations face in implementing action-oriented tactics to foster DEI.
  • Alignment between the diversity of the association and diversity of the professions and sectors they serve.

Pie chart showing 42% of members have witnessed, experienced or both - harassment, discrimination or bias in the workplace in the last year.

DEI statistics from the WE research study.

McKinley compiled and analyzed the research findings and shared the results on a facilitated webinar with the study co-sponsors. Each participating organization also received a tailored de-briefing to explore the findings in more detail and a white paper report outlining the findings. To ensure broad dissemination, the Forum and McKinley partnered to present the findings through a number of webinars, workshops and publications.

word cloud; center text: "What do members want us to do?"


Determining Next Steps

The research revealed that fewer than half of all members reported satisfaction with the level of inclusion in their workplaces. At the same time, nearly 90% indicated it is one of the most important attributes to exist within the workplace. The co-sponsors of the study have embraced these findings, expressing their eagerness to get started. As Joel Albizo, FASAE, CEO of the American Planning Association shared, “What you want to create is a virtuous cycle…some activities create a foundation and lead to other virtuous activities. Then you have a pattern. Then a habit. And then a culture.”

For the Forum, this project represents a launch pad for highly targeted DEI resources and a baseline to measure progress.

Read more about the business case for DEI outlined by PWC.


Meet the Team:

Headshot of Jon Hockman, a principal at McKinley Advisors.

Jon Hockman, CPF, FASAE


Woman wearing a black sweaterCandace Vanderpoel, M.A.
Senior Research Manager


Woman wearing a dark jacket

Meghana Deshmane
Research Manager


Young professional woman wearing a dark jacket

Kelseagh Budris


nicole valentine

Nicole Valentine
Senior Project Associate


Participating co-sponsors

“When we initially approached McKinley about the WE project expansion, we had a vision and some goals. The racial injustices of 2020 were harrowing but they gave us an opportunity to help our members and stakeholders take real and measurable action. McKinley pivoted with us, translating the research data into compelling stories, facilitating honest and sometimes personal conversations about DEI with our members, and helping the community commit to next steps.”
Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE
President and CEO, Association Forum