Here’s a number that every government relations professional should take to heart: two out of three companies, associations and other organizations now have a formal, organization-wide plan to address diversity, equity and inclusion.
It does not stop there. Roughly 59% of organizations incorporate DEI goals into their larger strategic plans and one in 10 even have plans for individual teams and departments, according to the 2021 DEI Trends in Public Affairs Report. A majority (57%) have one or more staff members dedicated solely to DEI initiatives.
The message is clear: DEI is not something effective government relations teams can ignore. Rather, diversity efforts represent an opportunity to play a leadership role and foster a DEI culture in your organization and your industry. By making strategic changes to how your organization conducts advocacy, how it engages with the campaign finance system, and how you structure and grow your team, you can realize tangible benefits and, more importantly, help advance a culture that leads with DEI and makes a positive impact in the communities where you operate.
“DEI efforts integrate well with government relations programs,” said Shelli Holland, chief people officer at Capitol Canary (now acquired by Quorum). “Whether you are supporting organizational goals or making changes to improve your program, diversity, equity and inclusion are vital ingredients to the success of your campaigns and the long-term health of your team.”
The Case for DEI in Government Affairs
While diversity efforts are not new—they have always been important to well-run organizations—a growing body of research in recent years has built a business case for increasing DEI efforts. Studies show that diverse organizations make better decisions and over-perform on goals. “The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability,” McKinsey & Company wrote in a 2020 report called Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. “Moreover, we found that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance.”
Add to that the changes taking place in the national conversation. The protests that took place after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 involved as many as 26 million people nationwide, according to polls at the time. They were very likely the largest movement ever on U.S. soil. Unlike years past, when companies and associations might stay silent on divisive social issues, many major brands like Amazon, Netflix and Citigroup chose to speak out publicly. Organizations of all stripes expressed support for peaceful protest, the Black Lives Matter movement or equality in general. Nike went so far as to alter its signature slogan, releasing a video that said, “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.”
The decision by major brands to speak out was not entirely new. It was fueled by an increase in activism on social issues that has been building in recent years, driven by changes in the marketplace. Research and polling show that consumers, investors and supporters increasingly want the organizations they interface with to declare where they stand on important issues. When the protests began, many companies were already more comfortable in an active role than they may have been a decade prior. “Companies realize they cannot sit silent anymore,” said Jeb Ory, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Capitol Canary. “They have to reflect a set of values. Taking a position on important issues is becoming a market expectation.”
The protests launched fresh debate over how America addresses race and what is being done to combat institutional racism. The conversation has impacted policy areas from education and workforce rules to criminal justice, policing and election laws. It continues in ways large and small, from the presidential podium to state houses and school boards across the United States. It’s a vital conversation that will have a great deal of impact in the short term, as the U.S. enters a series of critical election cycles, and in the long term, as our youngest generation enters college and the workforce.
It’s also a timely conversation, because the demographics in America are changing to reflect a more multicultural population. A piece by William H. Frey, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, in September says the country’s white population in 2020 declined over the previous decade for the first time ever, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census. It further said that children of color now make up 53% of America’s total youth population, and that some projections show more than half the country’s young labor force will be nonwhite by 2030.
All of this has fueled an increased emphasis on DEI efforts at many organizations across the country. Though the protests have quieted, the conversation has not and leaders are asking themselves what they can do to address and increase diversity, equity and inclusion in ways that go beyond hiring. Indeed, there are many—and your government affairs team can play a role.
Supporting DEI With Hiring
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind for many when DEI initiatives are discussed is hiring, and this is an area where government affairs teams do not fare well. It is also an area where teams are actively working to improve.
The Public Affairs Council survey showed that only 17% of government affairs staffers are people of color, and that 23% report no people of color on their teams at all. When asked to rate their profession in terms of racial and ethnic diversity on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the best, respondents gave themselves a 30. Moreover, almost two thirds (61%) said that the perceived lack of diversity in the field was discouraging people from entering the field.
However, the study also showed that many were optimistic about the future, with 83% saying diversity will increase in the next three to five years.
“The primary driving factor for this movement is organizations making conscious commitments to hire more diverse candidates, according to three-quarters of the respondents,” the study said. “Additionally, most respondents (84%) report that their organizations have a process to encourage diversity in hiring, and 36% say their organizations have codified this process with specific requirements and/or goals.”
Supporting DEI With Advocacy
Advocacy at most organizations has a natural interface with DEI goals because it is based on outreach and engagement. Using advocacy as a tool to support DEI initiatives is an achievable goal that can easily align with brand marketing and communications. Here are some things that teams can explore.
You may choose to share your organization’s DEI goals with your existing advocates, or perhaps launch a petition in support of initiatives that advance diversity. Both are easy ways to help DEI efforts. Or maybe your organization will go farther and support or oppose bills in order to advance equality. Whatever the case, a government affairs team’s ability to rally an audience can almost certainly help amplify DEI efforts.
DEI efforts on your team could be extended to include the makeup of your audience. Is your list of advocates diverse? Could you make it more so by adding new supporters? This is another area where a petition campaign might help. Directing a campaign at a diverse community can result in a more diverse group of supporters.
One great way to inject DEI efforts into your program is to partner with another organization and amplify their campaigns. In the Public Affairs Council study, 50% of those who responded have partnered to advance DEI and 20% were considering it. In almost half the cases (46%), organizations chose to partner with an association or a nonprofit, and in almost a third (29%) government affairs played a primary role in creating the partnership.
Messaging and Materials
No matter what your strategy, the materials and messaging you use in communications should reflect a diverse audience. Take a cue from national advertisers. When your advocates see your communiques, they should see themselves.
Whether virtual or in-person, events can be a solid way to highlight diversity initiatives. For example, CRH, which manufactures construction materials globally, held a fly-in just before the pandemic struck last year. “We’re not the most diverse industry,” said John Hay, senior vice president for government relations at CRH, “and we’re trying hard to change that.” The government relations team brought 35 company leaders—all of them women—to Washington to meet with members of Congress. The group divided up and met with 45 representatives, senators and chiefs of staff.
Stories from your supporters and their experiences with diversity, equity and inclusion can be a powerful way to add to the conversation. You can collect these stories, curate them and use them when the time is right.
Supporting DEI With Fundraising
Another way that government relations teams can play a role in DEI efforts is through their political action committees.
Start with a question that may be jarring to some: How diversified is your support?
- Do you support candidates of all racial and ethnic backgrounds?
- Do you support candidates who are women?
- Do you support LGBTQ candidates?
While still far from perfect, Congress is becoming more diverse, with growing populations of lawmakers representing Asian, Latinx and other communities. Of course, the issue of diverse spending quickly becomes complicated by other factors, such as party alignment and policy positions. For example, most Black members of Congress are Democrats. If your organization leans conservative, that obviously poses a conflict. But it’s a good exercise to undertake, because the inequities in political finance are real.
While America has more Black lawmakers than ever before, representation in Congress is still extremely uneven. African Americans make up about 13% of the country’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the Congress, there are 58 Black representatives (including two non-voting members) in the House, which is about 13%. In the Senate, however, there are only three Black members, which is just 3%.
According to a Quorum study earlier this year, the fundraising numbers are also lopsided. Without considering local economic factors in the states and districts they represent and differences between fundraising in the House and the Senate, America’s 61 Black legislators should be getting about 11% of congressional political contributions. Yet they received only 6.2% in the 2019-2020 cycle. Put another way, America’s 61 Black lawmakers raised $254 million. That number should have been closer to $464 million.
Women also face inequity in the campaign finance system. Women have made historic gains in Congress in recent years, yet still fall short of equal representation. There are 147 women serving in the 117th Congress, including non-voting seats: 123 in the House and 24 in the Senate. Collectively, women make up about 27% of the legislative branch, even though they represent about 51% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While women are prolific fundraisers—some, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are among the largest in American politics—an analysis shows that women also carry a heavier burden than men when it comes to raising campaign funds. Women who run for Congress must raise an average of 29% more than men in order to win their seats.
While not every organization with a PAC can diversify spending, they can analyze their contributions through the prism of diversity and evaluate their decisions. What percentage of contributions go to Black lawmakers? To women? To minority lawmakers in total? It’s a great exercise to undertake and will fit seamlessly into a larger DEI plan.