Unleash additional capacity by working in a more culturally competent wayIf your nonprofit serves a diverse community, then cultural competence has a direct effect on the success of your programs and services.
Consider what can happen when this competence is missing:
- Hoshi, an immigrant from Japan, entered a nonprofit treatment center for alcohol dependence. The center expected clients to notify their family members about being in treatment. Staff members were shocked when Hoshi's parents disowned him. He'd "shamed" the family by publicly admitting his drinking problem.
- Robert, a black man, enrolled in a job training program offered by a nonprofit organization in his neighborhood. Everyone that he interacted with at the program was white. He also noticed that the artwork and reading materials in the nonprofit's classroom offered no images of African-Americans. Finding no cultural cues to connect with, he dropped out of the program.
- Zhang Min was referred to a community health center for depression treatment. Therapists at the center expected Zhang Min to resist talking about her symptoms due to the influences of her Chinese culture. Actually, Zhang Min had grown up in an Irish American neighborhood and socialized with people who openly expressed emotions. Zhang Min eventually said that — outside of her physical appearance — she considered herself to be more Irish than Chinese.
Breakdowns such as these are often attributed to a client's resistance or a staff member's neglect. In reality, the underlying dynamic can be a clash of cultures.
Cultural competence defined
For an individual, cultural competence begins with "cultural humility." This involves:
- Admitting that we interpret events through the lens of a particular culture — the norms for thinking, feeling and behaving that are shared by a specific group of people
- Remembering that people from another culture may have completely different interpretations of a given situation
- Recognizing the natural tendency to see our culturally-based interpretations as "right" — even though they represent one set of options among many
- Seeking out alternative interpretations as we interact with people, make decisions and solve problems
Even when you aspire to cultural competence as an individual, the systems in place at work can sometimes keep you from putting this skill into practice. Cultural competence at the organizational level requires organizations to consciously design structures and settings to meet the needs of diverse stakeholders.
Characteristics shared by nonprofits that have achieved cultural competence include:
- Explicit respect for diversity and equity. The organization's published policies define biased behavior in specific ways and state clear consequences for discriminatory behaviors. Written procedures describe culturally competent practices. Job descriptions mention cultural competence as a desired skill. Statements of mission, vision and goals make clear reference to cultures present in the organization's stakeholders.
- Support for the development of cultural competence among staff members. Culturally competent organizations go well beyond one-time workshops and isolated diversity initiatives. Cultural competence is an ongoing factor in hiring, training and evaluating staff members. When programs and services fail to reach certain stakeholders, leaders discuss cultural differences as possible factors.
- Visible evidence of inclusion. Program participants find books, periodicals and educational materials published in their native language. Offices and meeting areas display artwork, posters and signs with positive images of participant cultures. The composition of the organization's staff reflects the diversity of its client populations.
- A move from diversity to inclusion. Culturally competent organizations understand that it's not enough to diversify their board of directors and staff. These organizations actively embrace the alternative viewpoints that members of different cultures bring to the table.
How cultural competence benefits nonprofits
Even when nonprofit leaders say that they value cultural competence, they might balk at allocating time and money to actually achieve it. One solution is to see cultural competence not as a separate system — such as fundraising or program development — but as a key dimension of every system within your organization.
A lack of cultural competence can lead to ineffective programs, loss of funding and conflicts among staff members. In contrast, culturally competent organizations can:
- Attract more clients and program participants
- Serve those stakeholders more effectively and retain their loyalty
- Better understand a client's presenting issues and match that person with appropriate programs and services
- Recruit and retain diverse board members, staff members and volunteers
- Achieve financial stability through larger grants and higher donation rates
In short, cultural competence offers a positive framework for nonprofits that want to develop overall technical excellence. The guiding question is not: How are we failing to connect with the diverse cultures of our stakeholders? Instead, it is: What additional capacity could we unleash by doing our work in a more culturally competent way?
California Tomorrow: Cultural competency: What it is and why it matters by Laurie Olsen, Jhumpa Bhattacharya and Amy Scharf (2006)
CompassPoint: A capacity building approach to cultural competency by Anushka Fernandopulle (2007)
Community Tool Box: Section 7. Building culturally competent organizations (2016)
National Center for Cultural Competence: Information for organizations and programs (2017)
Peace Corps Information Collection and Exchange: Culture matters: The Peace Corps cross-cultural workbook (2012)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: A treatment improvement protocol: Improving cultural competence (2014)