President's Perspective: Why Belonging Matters
CASE has regional offices in London, Mexico City, Singapore, and Washington, D.C. Whilst I travel quite a bit to engage with our staff and our members globally, my base is in our U.S. office, where I particularly enjoy a Tuesday-morning tradition.
CASE offers a 3/2 hybrid work (three days in office, two days remote) schedule for the majority of our team. Everywhere in the world colleagues are in the office on Tuesdays. In D.C., we start the day with our “stand-up” meeting. At the meeting we celebrate work anniversaries and birthdays; provide updates on projects; and introduce new staff. We also pose a question that everyone answers. It can be as simple as, “What is your favorite ice cream?” or “How did you travel to school when you were a child?” Sometimes it is tied to the work we do, such as, “What membership association has been meaningful to you in your personal or professional life?”
No matter the question, everyone participates—even if it’s their first week at CASE—and as each person has their moment, we are sending a message: “We see you, we value you, we want to get to know you, and your voice matters.” The meetings also reinforce the joy and value of being physically together, as one of the many interconnected teams of our global staff community. It has been such a success that we began a version for our remote staff as well.
The weekly stand-up meeting is not only practical; it is about workplace culture and it fosters belonging.
Today, teams across sectors have made such efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion that the DEI acronym has become common and widely understood. At CASE we acknowledge the importance of belonging by embracing the lesser-known (although gaining in momentum) acronym DEIB. The language and acronym both vary in different parts of the world. Our commitment, no matter the words we use or their chronology, is core to our values: “And we are committed, in all that we do, to be collaborative, inclusive, and embracing of diversity.”
When we talk about belonging, we believe it to be the result of effective DEI practices and efforts. It’s the destination.
With diversity, we look at demographics as we work to ensure our workplaces reflect the communities that we serve and in which we live and work. Equity provides each employee with the tools and opportunities they need to succeed, and at the same time seeks to remove any barriers to their ability to thrive. Inclusion refers to creating an environment in which staff feel valued, trusted, and supported.
And that brings us to belonging. My colleague, Jessica Elmore, CASE’s Senior Director, DEIB Training, says it is the most important piece of the puzzle.
“Belonging is something I have control over as an employee,” she says. “It is my opportunity to execute self-agency, to decide if what the institution is doing is working for me. Belonging is not an automatic achievement of DEI strategies implemented by the institution. It is a partnership that requires shared power between the institution and the individual/community. For too long, communities that are systematically marginalized and underserved experienced ‘solutions’ imposed on them without their voices being centered or heard. The absence of autonomy obstructs developing a sense of belonging.”
Brené Brown, bestselling author and sociologist, has this to say on the topic: “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
Belonging is one of the most basic human desires. And should there be any doubt of that, think back to a time when you felt like you didn’t belong.
When I was nine, my family moved from the United States to England—my parents were returning after spending 12 years in California. At the first primary school I attended in London I discovered that I was the only Jewish child and first experienced antisemitism there. There was a very religious (which my family is not) Jewish school nearby. In neither context did I, nor would I, have fit in. Furthermore, my life experience had primarily been North American—learning about London took a wee while.
Some time later, when I was fortunate to start my very first job in educational advancement, again I had that feeling of not belonging, and imposter syndrome loomed large. I didn’t have a background of working in the university sector—I had come from the arts and cultural institutions. It was my membership in CASE, and my warm engagement with both CASE staff and fellow members and volunteers alike, that helped me overcome those feelings.
DEIB is a CASE priority and as President and CEO, I am proud of that. The summer of 2020, spurred by George Floyd’s murder, was a reckoning in the U.S. that had global reverberations. Many of us, our members and your colleagues, were compelled to question our own biases and ask how we can do better with new or ongoing DEIB work.
We looked at our own workplaces with questions, some simple and others more difficult. Do our guidelines for professional attire account for cultural dress? Are we inclusive when we celebrate holidays? What assumptions do we make about a person’s background based on the color of their skin, religious background, or physical attributes?
We learned, and data back this up, that DEIB is not just the right thing to do. It leads to greater retention, innovation, staff morale, and institutional loyalty.
As always, CASE is here providing support in your efforts. Jessica is a member of our Opportunity and Inclusion Center team, which focuses our efforts on creating greater equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging for our member institutions and for our staff. This includes on-site trainings, our new on-demand course “The Journey Starts With You: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Advancement,” our Multi-Cultural Network, and much more.
Our staff members in the OIC teamed up with our CASE Insights data science team to develop the Advancement Inclusion Index, a self-assessment for advancement teams to measure DEIB efforts and demographic data to assess how inclusive they currently are and where there are opportunities to learn and to improve.
I’m heartened when I hear the conversations and see the self-reflection taking place in our profession. None of us is perfect when it comes to DEIB. We have room to grow and room to improve. But, with a destination of “belonging,” we have commenced the journey, and that’s how change happens.
CASE’s online course “The Journey Starts With You: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Advancement” takes participants through a personal journey focused on social identities, in-groups and out-groups, and approaching difficult conversations. It includes a module on belonging.
About the author(s)
Sue Cunningham is president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), which supports more than 3,100 schools, colleges, and universities worldwide in developing their alumni relations, communications, fundraising, and marketing operations in order to advance their institutions. As CASE president and CEO, she provides strategic and operational leadership for one of the largest associations of education-related institutions in the world with members in more than 80 countries. She became president of CASE in March 2015.
Cunningham engaged CASE and thousands of its volunteers in a comprehensive strategic planning process resulting in Reimagining CASE: 2017 - 2021, an ambitious and comprehensive framework for serving CASE’s members and championing education worldwide. This volunteer and member engagement extends into a comprehensive effort to refine CASE’s governance structure to more effectively support CASE’s global reach and service to members.
Under her leadership, CASE acquired the Voluntary Support of Education survey and created AMAtlas. CASE has reinvigorated its global advocacy agenda and is engaged in reviews of the curriculum across all advancement disciplines and an update of CASE’s management and reporting standards and guidelines, which operate as the industry-leading set of standards. She is most proud of CASE’s efforts to diversify the advancement professions and CASE’s commitment to talent management, within the organization and across CASE’s membership.
Cunningham serves on the steering committee of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, is a member of the Council of Higher Education Management Associations, and the International Women’s Forum, and serves on the fundraising committee for the Aurora Foundation.
Prior to CASE, she served as vice principal for advancement at the University of Melbourne and as the director of development for the University of Oxford. She served as director of development at Christ Church, Oxford, and as director of external relations at St. Andrews University.
She is an honorary fellow of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a recipient of the CASE Europe Distinguished Service Award, and a CASE Crystal Apple Award recipient. She holds a master’s degree from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from Middlesex University.
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