How to Strengthen Your Nonprofit’s Cultural Competencies
Nonprofits are staffed by incredibly competent and dedicated people — experts who understand their work backward and forward, whether it be housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, or supporting these programs through effective fundraising and building sustainable solutions to the world’s most challenging problems.
However, one skillset we can always brush up on — and always be aware of — is cultural competency. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines cultural competency as “the ability to provide services to clients that honor different cultural beliefs, interpersonal styles, attitudes and behaviors and the use of multicultural staff in the policy development, administration and provision of those services.”
Fundamentally, cultural competency is an organization’s ability to deeply understand its community and the people it serves. It’s also the ability to communicate across cultural divides in a way that’s respectful and rewarding. For example, a culturally competent nonprofit can speak the language of their constituents, both literally and figuratively. It knows what issues matter to them most; it knows when and how to reach them; and it knows their preferred method of talking about key issues.
But cultural competency is more than a skill. It’s also an ingredient that allows nonprofits to truly thrive. When you're fluent in the different cultures and communities you interact with, you're better able to serve them, listen to them and improve their lives.
So how can a non-profit go about improving their cultural competency? Here are three steps:
Engage Everyone From the Beginning
Diversity and inclusion are at the very heart of cultural competency. For that reason, efforts to build cultural competency at your nonprofit should not be done behind closed doors or by a small, select group of people.
Each and every member of your organization has a unique background and experience that defines their perspectives, their culture and their values. You should tap into these backgrounds, and also the backgrounds and experiences of others — funders, board members, your constituents. To do this, make it clear within every cultural competency workshop, survey or other tactic you host that everyone's opinions are valued equally.
Take Your Time and Be Thorough
Nonprofit leaders may feel the urge to be efficient or speedy when building cultural competency within the organization, but that's a common mistake. This is a process that takes time — you need to build real human connections.
Avoid top-down workstreams and cutting corners. Each step you take to build your cultural competency should be deliberate — from the workshops and surveys mentioned earlier to crafting a charter alongside the communities you serve. It's also crucial to collect real, robust data and not rely on anecdotes or qualitative assessments.
Measure Your Success
If you truly want to build cultural competency, you need to hold yourself accountable. That's where measurement and metrics come in. This process doesn't have to be overly complicated: Simple metrics, like knowing how your employees reflect the community you serve, should be tracked. For example, if you’re a nonprofit serving public schools in Chicago, how many of your staff are graduates of those same schools?
Another metric to track is the frequency and depth of community engagement. How often are you getting out into the field and truly engaging with and learning from the people you serve? If your answer isn’t “a lot,” then there’s work to be done.
The communities that nonprofit serve are increasingly diverse, and so your team and organization need to reflect that. For a nonprofit today to be successful, it must be both well-versed and confident when it's communicating across cultural differences and with people who have different backgrounds.
As you build your cultural competency, be upfront about your shortcomings and be honest about how you can improve them. It will be a challenging process, but it's well worth the investment.
Celeste Frye, AICP, is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a certified Women's Business Enterprise, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Small Business Enterprise planning and consulting firm, specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the nonprofit, government and private sectors.