The Case for Permanent Virtual Participation in Leadership Meetings: Maintaining Diversity & Accessibility

The Case for Permanent Virtual Participation in Leadership Meetings: Maintaining Diversity & Accessibility

By Erin Volland

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, highlighted a tweet in her March newsletter that helped to further articulate one of the troubling reasons about the possible move back to in-person meetings. The tweet referenced how disabled people have been asking for years for remote conferences so they can participate and how they have been told no, it’s too difficult to do, at least until the pandemic made remote events a necessity for everyone.  In her newsletter, Priya challenges us to “build our gatherings around the needs and insights of the marginalized.”

As someone who spends so much time with boards of directors, committees, and volunteers who want to diversify their leadership and want to fill their available seats with competent leaders, here is what worries me: associations will take away the accessibility that the pandemic has offered. There have been rumblings of associations saying that remote conferencing equipment is too expensive. However, virtual meetings removed service barriers for people with physical or situational challenges that have the requisite competencies and desired experience/background to advance organizational strategy. That accessibility opened doors to a broader and important universe of talent.

Many associations are prioritizing their early career members as they develop their leadership pipelines. Virtual meeting options can accommodate those early careerists who are caring for young children or elderly parents, who do not have employer support to travel, and who do not have the resources to do so. And, of course, the many other personal reasons people cannot travel and attend an in-person meeting.

Continuing to offer a virtual option is not a foolproof way to ensure access to meetings. Many associations often still rely on individuals to have their own technology, which has limits in its own ways, but that is a conversation for another day.

So, here is the request as we move back to in-person meetings: Do not automatically remove the virtual (or hybrid) option because it is difficult to manage or expensive.

Take the time to really look at what virtual meetings have offered and can continue to offer in the future. Many associations are evaluating employment policies on remote employees to get the best talent on staff. This logic should be applied to volunteer leaders as well. Employees and volunteer leaders have proven they can be successful remotely. Let’s strive to keep building on new participation models that have been developed over the past year.

Some practical items to look at when deciding on how to host your leadership meetings moving forward include:

  • Review board, committee, and workgroup meeting schedules to determine what must be done in person, the content that must be done in person (if anything) and why it must be done in person. Continue to offer a virtual option for those who cannot attend in-person. Update the meeting calendar and include this in any marketing language for the call for volunteers.
  • Review policies that require in-person attendance and remove them except when absolutely necessary. (Better check the bylaws too, just in case.)
  • Review funds that are available for leaders to attend meetings, remote conferencing technology in meeting rooms, and support technology in leaders’ homes.
  • Keep work groups small in size and focused on the work to be accomplished.
  • Look at the data (skill sets, demographics, etc.) on who is attending virtual meetings and compare it to in-person meetings. Who is showing up that didn’t before? Who does not show up when the meetings are only in-person?
  • Compare the meeting attendance data (skill sets, demographics, etc.) to current leadership. Who is missing from leadership? How does this compare to desired leadership competencies and diversity?

If your association takes the time to be thoughtful about what leadership meetings look like and what format they will take over the next year, the gains made in accessibility and diversity will be here to stay.

And, if diversity and inclusion is in your association’s values and strategy, how can your associations go back to the format that only allows for a very specific individual to participate in person? If competencies are defined for the board and committees and then an additional requirement is to travel in-person to all meetings, isn’t that working against the diversity and inclusion initiative?

Let’s challenge ourselves in our board and volunteer leadership experiences to continue to offer accessible solutions to everyone in the pipeline and keep the virtual meeting option for the long haul.

Erin Volland, MPA CAE is a senior consultant on the 911 Consulting Team

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