Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
The National Association of Realtors made diversity initiatives a priority more than 10 years ago as demographics among its members and their clients began to shift. With the help of its local and state associations and commitment from its staff and leadership, NAR has started to build a more inclusive organization and board.
The National Association of Realtors began looking at questions around diversity in the late 1990s when its national president received information from NAR about the demographic shifts happening nationwide.
"While he was from southwest Missouri, which was pretty much homogenous white at the time, he looked at it and said, 'What's going on in the market means that if I don't change my business, I'm going to go out of business,'" says Fred Underwood, NAR's director of diversity. It was clear to the president that the markets were changing, but his business was not.
"National was in the same place," says Underwood. "Our membership was 95 percent white in the late nineties, but their clientele was much more diverse. While our initial involvement in diversity was related to the Fair Housing Act, we soon realized that we were going to have to look at diversity and inclusion (D&I) differently in order to survive. It was then that we started thinking strategically about it."
While the board and staff knew that D&I was critical to the association's success, they also knew that implementation would be a long-term process. Realizing that doing nothing could mean the end of their association, they began exploring how the organization could become more culturally diverse and remained open to exploring broader types of diversity along the way.
NAR began its D&I efforts like most associations do: It put together some working groups to have discussions and make recommendations to the staff and board. But early on, it realized that wasn't enough. In 1998, its first programmatic step was to ask one question: How would NAR make sure that Realtors were aware of and trained to work with multicultural markets?
"We developed a market-focused exercise providing diversity training to real estate agents and their companies in an effort to help them reach out to changing demographics," Underwood says. "This was a move from fair housing training that said 'Don't discriminate' to [a message that said] 'Here's how you reach out and market to a multicultural market without violating the Fair Housing Act.'"
This training was embraced by NAR's next president, who asked the entire national board (about 700 members) to take the six-hour class. "About four fifths did," he says. "Then we offered it all around the country. It worked well and has been going on since."
This success also demonstrated to Underwood and his colleagues at national that training members to work in multicultural markets would not be enough. For the association to survive, it needed to more fully engage Realtors who already worked in those environments. "Those are who we needed in our association's active membership and leadership," he says.
Underwood and his colleagues knew that creating a more diverse board wouldn't be a quick process. Under NAR's current governance structure, the path to leadership takes eight or nine years, and candidates need support from directors across the country, which makes adding new people to the national board a long process. "Truthfully, NAR hasn't been successful in bringing much D&I to the national board," says Underwood. "The reason is that it has to happen almost organically. So we've said, 'Let's bring on more engaged members [at the local level] and it will move to states, and then to national.'"
To engage Realtors who already worked with multicultural clients and in multicultural communities, NAR reached out to its Realtor associations on both the local and state level. The reason was simple: "The national association is dependent on the local associations for these types of changes to take place," says Underwood. "We can't begin to see diversity among people active in NAR unless they are first active at the local level."
One local association pushing ahead with diversity efforts was the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. In 2001, NVAR implemented a new governance structure to increase board diversity. It allowed the incoming chair to select three members at large to serve on the board for a one-year term.
"While the chairman may select any member in good standing, the guidelines encouraged the chairman, with the assistance of the CEO, to select members who would help the board reflect a broader spectrum in our profession and demographics," says NVAR CEO Christine M. Todd, RCE, CIPS, CAE. The at-large board appointments included commercial Realtors, property managers, appraisers, and Realtors from NVAR's Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern communities.
"The members appointed to these positions added a refreshing new dimension to our board, and they were thrilled to serve," she says. "The constituency they represented took note of this move and openly expressed its appreciation for our inclusiveness."
In 2007, NVAR's first Hispanic appointed director became chairman. When he and Todd began discussing his goals, "he said he wanted to create a special place within the association where our diverse membership could gather as a community of their own. He wanted a place where the leadership and staff could explain face to face to these underserved members the benefits of membership and the value of becoming involved. And so we created the first of many forums."
The first Hispanic Forum was so successful that NVAR now has Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese forums, and a Young Professionals Network. "Each group has its own advisory board to suggest topics for quarterly meetings; these forums are a feeder group for our committees and Leadership Institute," Todd says.
NVAR's D&I work has benefited the national organization as well. NAR's president selected two of NVAR's members to serve as liaisons to real estate associations in Peru and Vietnam, and some of NVAR's members have moved forward on the path to leadership of the national organization.
The Chicago Association of Realtors has seen similar efforts pay off. According to CEO Ginger Downs, RCE, IOM, CAE, its Young Professionals Network has been a great recruiting tool. "We have about 400 to 500 people in the network," she says. "Even better is that they are our biggest advocates and talk about the association constantly."
Downs attributes this success to asking young members what they wanted, giving them resources, and then allowing them to develop a structure for their network. Recently, the association added a member in her 20s to its board and appointed her to a national director position, helping to bring that diversity to the next level. "Diversity goes beyond ethnicity and culture," Downs says. "You also have to think age and gender."
Underwood says NAR will see the most progress from working with state and local Realtor associations with ethnically diverse populations, but that doesn't mean the national association will leave all the D&I work to its state and local associations.
While NAR has been successful in providing diversity training to most of its board members, it has also made progress in other areas. In the late 1990s, the association began rolling its D&I strategy into its advocacy efforts. "A lot of people may ask why we did this," says Underwood. "But we had a very good reason."
He says when Republicans took over Congress in 1994, lots of ranking Democratic members were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. NAR knew that when the Democrats retook the House, chairs of various committees would likely be members of the caucus.
"This got us thinking about who were the Realtors who were active in their districts. If districts are represented by a member of the Black, Asian, or Hispanic caucus, their districts are likely to be much more diverse. So we want to make sure that Realtors active in NAR's political work are coming from those communities," he says. "[W]hen you can tie [your message] to the community base rather than a lobbyist, you have a different kind of advocacy that you can engage in. In the United States, one out of 300 people is a Realtor. Virtually everyone knows one, and so do the policymakers, which not only makes for stronger advocacy, but it helps us with our D&I efforts."
In addition to tying its D&I strategy to its advocacy efforts, NAR developed a diversity committee and wrote its D&I strategy into the organization's strategic plan.
"We needed to build a case, and key people in leadership and from our senior staff had to make a commitment," Underwood says.
NAR also developed D&I resources for its local and state associations and their boards, including a toolkit that catalogs local association D&I programs. NAR offers small grants to the local groups to help pay for these programs. "Markets continue to change, and members need to know how to work in multicultural environments," Underwood says. "If you don't provide education to reach out to new people, you will lose influence among your membership."
While Underwood and others say that D&I efforts can be difficult and frustratingly slow at times, that's not a reason to stop pushing ahead, no matter how long it takes.
"If you want to be effective, different constituencies need to be represented in your decision making," says Underwood. "People often view D&I as more of the right thing to do rather than as a business essential. But it really is both."
Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org