The Power of Inclusive Language in Associations: Building a Welcoming Community

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DeLaine Bender CAE - AMR Management Services

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Associations are spaces where members from specific professions, fields, or industries can engage, network, and learn. Boards of Directors and association leaders want their associations to be inclusive and valuable experiences for all members. Sometimes, however, we may unintentionally do or say things that make people feel excluded.

In our diverse world, associations must strive to create environments that are welcoming and authentic. One powerful tool in achieving this is the use of precise and inclusive language.

What is Inclusive Language?

I first heard the term a few years ago at a conference, as I was struck by the examples of non-inclusive language that were shared in the presentation. They included expressions (“I’m so OCD on that” or “that’s so lame,” for example), minimizing terms, or cultural references that are commonly used without recognition of their unintentional impact.

Quoting this blog post from HubSpot, inclusive language could be described as the “words and phrases you use that avoid biases, slang, and expressions that discriminate against groups of people based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and ability.”

Inclusive language is more than just avoiding offensive phrases, of course. I love this inclusive language guide published by Cal State East Bay, one of many you can access on the internet. It reminds us to be mindful of our language—and stay open to being corrected when we make a mistake!

Why Inclusive Language Matters

1. Reflects Your Values

Beyond being the right thing to do, using inclusive language demonstrates your personal values and reflects the association’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. It acknowledges the power dynamic and the value of every person’s unique identity and experience.

2. Enhances Communication and Understanding

Inclusive language ensures that your communications are clear and respectful to all. This goes beyond avoiding offensive terminology and includes creating an equitable level of comprehension for all readers. For example, using plain language and avoiding acronyms and jargon helps everyone understand your message.

3. Builds a Welcoming Community

When members feel seen and respected, they are more likely to engage actively and have a more enjoyable, safe, and valuable experience in the association. That contributes to member satisfaction and retention, as well as overall participation in the association.

How to Implement Inclusive Language

1. Review and Revise Communications

Conduct a thorough review of your association’s communications, such as the website, newsletters, social media, and internal documents. Does the imagery and language reflect inclusiveness? Look for language that may be exclusive and revise it to be unbiased, person-first, and gender-neutral. For instance, we always use “chair” instead of “chairman” and “they/them” as a singular pronoun when gender is unknown or irrelevant.

2. Acknowledge and Respect Identities

Celebrate and recognize the diversity of your association membership. Use language that respects different identities and experiences and refer to individuals by the names and pronouns they have chosen. When discussing topics related to race, ethnicity, disability, or other aspects of identity, use terms that the respective communities prefer and recognize. Understand that language is always changing and there may not be consensus around terminology.

3. Ask for Feedback—and Use It

Create opportunities for members to provide feedback on your association’s use of language. This can help you identify areas for improvement and demonstrate that you value your members’ perspectives. Be open to their feedback, and regularly update your association’s language guidelines and communications.

Conclusion

There is much more to explore on the topic of inclusive language. I can’t begin to catalogue the online resources and research from expert sources, which indicates the importance and impact of inclusive language.

The key takeaway: as association leaders, we must prioritize every opportunity to create a more welcoming and diverse community. Adopting inclusive language is one fundamental step towards creating an environment where all members feel valued and respected.

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DeLaine Bender CAE
Vice President of Client Services

Degrees and Credentials:
Certified Association Executive (CAE), Bachelor of Arts in Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma

Association Management Professional Since:
1995

What inspires you about your work?
In my career, I have been blessed to work with some amazing, inspiring association leaders, who have become mentors and friends. I also enjoy the challenging, ever-changing environment of associations, and the sense of fulfillment in having made a difference in a profession or on an issue.

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