Is Inclusion Part of Your Organizing Principle?

If not, you’re blocking your path to better events—and welcoming inclusion riders can help.

You understand why diversity and inclusion are important. And if you’re like more than half of planners surveyed by MPI, your organization has some sort of formal diversity and inclusion policy.

There’s another tool at your disposal: an inclusion rider. Popularized by Frances McDormand in her 2018 Oscars acceptance speech, inclusion riders are a stipulation attached to a contract that requires diversity in hiring. For films, that might translate to, say, a leading actor signing on to a project only if at least 50% of the crew is female. For events? The possibilities are just beginning.

When event professional Nick Borelli first learned about inclusion riders, the idea instantly made sense. “That’s the easiest thing in the world,” Borelli says. “I’m not in movies, but I do have speaker contracts, and I don’t want to be associated with organizations that aren’t taking that seriously.” Borelli’s standard contract now stipulates that before accepting a speaking gig or a spot on a panel, the organization must make a good-faith effort to source diverse panelists. “Unless you’re actually putting all your money where your mouth is, it’s all sort of virtue signaling.”

Speakers aren’t the only ones who can bring inclusion riders to events. Planners can bring them to their approach with vendors and partners. The key to making inclusion riders work isn’t just their legal status, though. It’s in their inherent possibility: making diversity a part of an event’s DNA.

Make diversity integral to the organizing principle

When equity is tethered to the high-level strategy of a meeting, it’s transformed from an “extra” or a “nice to have” into a commonsense aspect of how and why the event operates. That’s more than an aspirational philosophy; it ensures cohesion among all arms of the event at every point.

“When you bake this into your organizing principle and make it something that’s your guiding light, then the fact that some people might be uncomfortable isn’t a problem,” Borelli says. “If your organizing principle is to create changemakers because that’s what’s needed in the group at that time, some people might feel uncomfortable but it’s like, ‘Well, our organizing principle is to make change, not to make comfort.’”

It also has the benefit of involving stakeholders from the start. If a top-level decision-maker—say, a C-suite executive involved with the host organization but not directly involved with planning the event—expresses concern about breaking the mold of an event, planners can clearly lay out how inclusion ladders up to the meeting’s goals. “Then it’s not like I’m telling someone, ‘This is just what I think it should be.’ It’s a part of the organizing principle,” Borelli says.

Transparency about the role of diversity within your event also creates a shield against inevitable bumps in the road. It enables planners to go to stakeholders and say something like, “We’re focusing on new ideas, so you’re going to see presenters who have been chosen for their unique perspectives instead of people who are all trying to solve the same problems in the same way.”

That said, bringing diversity to the stakeholders themselves can improve events from the start as well. For example, your event plans might be in accordance with legal accessibility guidelines, but when people who need ability accommodations are involved early on, they’re positioned to point out ways to improve your event for everyone.

Borelli highlights a conference he worked on for software developers. There was one woman on the panel, and she mentioned that without any options for child care or family activities, developers who were parenting small children had a barrier to attendance—even though many of them chose this career specifically because they could work from home.

The result? The following year, planners incorporated a STEM track for attendees’ children. The site was near a water park as well, transforming an unintentionally exclusive gathering into an event that was inclusive, educational, and fun.

Remember that this is about the attendee experience

That STEM track succeeded because it kept its eye on the overarching mission of every gathering: delivering a superb attendee experience. It’s a mission that is well-served by the specifics of an inclusion rider.

“Unless panels are intentionally designed with people who are coming from diverse points of view, they’re often a waste of time,” Borelli says. “I’m not even specifically saying it’s about race and gender or anything like that, although that definitely comes into play. But it’s usually just a bunch of people on the same page. If you don’t design a panel where one of the features is that you have multiple points of view, you’re left with, ‘Well, I agree with everything Ted said.’ It’s boring.”

That said, sticking with a known quantity avoids the risk of bringing in voices that aren’t already a part of the conversation—a temptation for meeting planners, who invest their reputations in pulling off flawless events. It’s a safe choice, but not one that makes for the memorable type of events you’re after.

More than being forgettable, a meeting that relies on homogeny detracts from the point of gathering together in the first place. “The whole purpose of intentionally designed experiences is that they’re vehicles for change,” Borelli says. “In fact, the superlative of an experience is creating changemakers—it’s not just that people who were there are changed by the message, but that they become agents of change themselves.”

How to bring inclusion riders to your events

“The actual inclusion rider is pretty easy,” Borelli says. “You just do it.”

Your biggest decision in implementing a rider is deciding how flexible you want it to be. Do you want to specify the terms of what constitutes diversity? Do you want to spell out how the rider’s effectiveness will be reported or measured? The sample inclusion rider issued by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism includes all of these—but you may find a more flexible approach works for you.

Flexibility doesn’t mean laxity, though. Instead, it can open doors for a definition of diversity that makes sense for your specific event. Borelli’s inclusion rider specifies terms of diversity in general, without giving fixed ratios. Such language might mean that a tech conference includes older speakers or vendors rather than concentrating on Gen Z and younger millennials exclusively—and it might mean the inverse at a conference for chaplains, a field that skews older.

“It’s about putting your money where your mouth is,” Borelli says. “But give yourself some flexibility, and give the person you’re talking with some grace to make adjustments.”