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Fieldstone Alliance: Tools You Can Use e-newsletter
Tools You Can Use

Starting Steps for Improving Cultural Competence

1. Understand the Concept of Cultural Competence
2. Decide What Cultural Competence Means for Your Organization
3. Ask Questions
4. Establish the Right Structure To Do the Work
Remember, It’s a Starting Point, Not an End Goal

Where to Learn More


From Jannina Aristy, Principal Consultant with Fieldstone Alliance:

IT'S NOT NEW or news, that cultural competence has become essential for today’s nonprofits. The situations below are typical of those we’re seeing among clients at Fieldstone Alliance:

Over the past two years, a small nonprofit serving a growing number of multicultural clients has been losing business. The reason: clients don’t want to talk to staff members who don’t understand their culture and language. Board and staff can’t agree on how to address the problem.

A regional foundation is developing a strategy to support its grantees’ issues of racial equity. The foundation is working to improve its response to the changing needs of its grantees and the people they serve. They've started by hiring a coordinator of culture and diversity initiatives.

A cross-cultural collaborative wants to reduce the disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in the correctional system. But the collaborative members all want different outcomes. They don’t really trust each other, and some feel they are pulling double the weight.

Older business models—ones that worked for a more monolithic culture—simply can’t keep up with today’s communities. The cultural context in which we live will likely require organizations to make adjustments in order to meet the needs of the communities they serve and remain competitive in the market. These adaptations may take many forms depending on the organization’s situation and the context in which they operate.

The trouble is that for most organizations, the issue is so “big” and fraught with peril that they’re afraid to get started. So, in this issue of Tools You Can Use, we've invited Jannina Aristy, the lead Fieldstone Alliance consultant on cultural competence, to set out some starting steps for organizations. These steps are:

  1. Understand the concept of cultural competence.
  2. Decide what cultural competence means for your organization.
  3. Ask questions.
  4. Establish the right structure to do the work.

We want to be clear: these steps are only a beginning point, which is the focus of this article. Let’s look at each step.

1. Understand the Concept of Cultural Competence
Clarity on the definition of cultural competence and its components can help you determine the best direction to take as you start your initiative. At Fieldstone Alliance, we build on a definition created by Terry Cross (co-author of Toward a System of Care, Volume 1) and others:

Cultural competence (or cultural competency) is “the ability of individuals, organizations, funders, and networks to function effectively across cultures. It implies the presence of a set of congruent behaviors, practices, policies, and skills that come together in an individual, system, or organization".

Of course, there are many other definitions. Some are industry or field-specific. Each of us also have our own definitions of culture that are deeply rooted in our personal experiences. Implicit in these formal definitions is the idea that developing cultural competencies is about gaining a set of skills. It is a continual developmental process. This means that cultural competence is not a one-time initiative. It is, rather, a concerted change effort both individually and organizationally.

Two guiding principles are part of cultural competence and need definition: diversity and inclusion.

Diversity refers to involving people of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Inclusion refers to purposefully integrating the perspectives and opinions of individuals at various levels within an organization.

Note that diversity does not result in inclusion. The presence of a diversity of people in a group does not mean that their diverse values and contributions will be recognized and woven into the outcomes the group seeks. Inclusion is essential to incorporating those ideas.

2. Decide What Cultural Competence Means for Your Organization
As you can see, it’s easy to confuse diversity with cultural competence. Often organizations set out to diversify staff, board, or both. But such an initiative does not usually change organizational policies that support overall functioning and effectiveness. A cultural competence agenda must diversify board and workplace as well as change policies to support retention of a diverse staff and full inclusion of their ideas.

When developing cultural competence, an organization changes its fundamental structures, processes, policies, and procedures to adjust to changing demographics and cultures. Changes are visible across the organization, including marketing and outreach, linguistic competence, evaluation, governance and leadership, administration, human resources, strategy and planning, community outreach, quality assurance and improvement, and consumer involvement.

From organization to organization, the look and implementation of cultural competence will therefore vary greatly; organizations will have a different expression of cultural competence.

3. Ask Questions
Certain questions will help raise the issue of cultural competence within your organization. These questions will also help the organization develop its unique sense of cultural competence, and further help it decide where to get started. They include:

  • What is our definition of diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence?
  • Do staff and board have the same definitions?
  • What does cultural competence mean for us within the context of our mission?
  • How will diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence impact the attainment of our mission?
  • Considering our current situation, should we focus on becoming more diverse, becoming more inclusive, or weaving these together into cultural competence?
  • How do each of our personal attributes and biases (world view, skills, capacities) contribute to the organization’s current status?

There is a dynamic relationship among the systems of an organization. This means that there are a variety of places one can start the organization on the journey of cultural competence. Any of them can have a significant impact on organizational effectiveness and on each other. These questions will help you hone in on which systems to start with:

  • Are you willing to do a self-assessment?
  • Do you have internal buy-in from key board and staff?
  • Do you have internal leadership to guide the efforts?
  • Do you have internal expertise and external guidance?
  • Do you understand your current level of cultural competence (baseline)?
  • Have you determined your priority populations and cultures? If so, what are your current outcomes among those populations and cultures?
  • Are you partnering with community constituents?
  • Do you have program and community disparities data?
  • Are you in compliance with Limited English Proficiency standards?
  • Do you have a strategy and plan? Is it part of the organization’s overall plan?

4. Establish the Right Structure To Do the Work
Because cultural competence involves all the systems of an organization, some sort of team structure is essential to operationalizing the work and to ensuring ownership across the organization. A single staff person will not have the time, energy, or clout to get the work done. Most typically, organizations form a cultural competence committee to get started on the work of changing the organization. Teams or committees should:

  • Be composed of diverse staff, representing various levels and units of the organization.
  • Identify each participant’s content expertise.
  • Be manageable in size. (Note that to keep the group manageable, some participants may have to represent more than one area—and will have to work extra hard to communicate with and incorporate the ideas of the groups represented.)
  • Ensure representation from the communities you serve.
  • Have a chair with appropriate skills and content expertise.
  • Have a defined purpose and clear roles. 
  • Establish a standing meeting schedule.
  • Identify specific projects and time-limited tasks, based on a concrete time line.
  • Always keep a meeting agenda with follow-up activities and assignments.
  • Establish accountability measures.

The actual work of the team varies with the goals of the organization. But typically, a cultural competence committee will tackle some of the following:

  • Set an overall cultural competence strategy and ensure alignment with the organization’s overall strategic plan.
  • Continually assess the plan.
  • Guide implementation of the plan.
  • Coordinate efforts within each department, business and/or organizational program area.
  • Coordinate efforts across program areas.
  • Guide an organizational self-assessment.
  • Identify, define, and guide staff training activities and conversations.
  • Update staff and community on progress.
  • Define and monitor success.
  • Report to management.

Remember, It’s a Starting Point, Not an End Goal
The steps in this article will help you get started on the journey of cultural competence, but they are only a beginning. In fact, the process of becoming culturally competent is that—a process. Ultimately, it will help your organization be more effective and deliver more on its mission for the people it serves.

Where to Learn More

Bureau of Health Professionals
They have a variety of resources including diversity grant information, cultural competence definitions, and training programs.

California Endowment and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services
An excellent series of six monographs on approaches to organizational development and capacity in cultural competence.

California Tomorrow
The report, "Cultural Competency: What It Is and Why It Matters" makes the case for cultural competence and "Leading by Example" offers tools and resources to strengthen diversity and equity practices.

Council on Foundations
Diversity resources including general information, diversity in grantmaking, board and workplace diversity, and a sample statement on inclusiveness.

A clearinghouse of information on how to meet the language and cultural needs of minorities, immigrants, refugees and other diverse populations seeking health care.

Fieldstone Alliance
Get information on how cultural competence can improve organizational effectiveness, and how we can help your organization, network, or collaborative successfully kick off its initiatives. Also see our cultural competence definition, approach, strategies, and position statement.

Minnesota Council on Foundations
Their toolkit—based on their Diversity Framework—offers help on how grantmaking organizations can address inclusivity in their roles as funders, employers, businesses, and community citizens.

The Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County
Their "working definition of cultural competency" includes guiding principles and their implementation commitment.

National Center for Cultural Competence
Here are six reasons for incorporating cultural competence into organizational policy.

Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation
See their succinct brochure for a good overview of why and how the Foundation embraces diversity and what their diversity policy is.

Rural Assistance Center
Cultural competence and limited english proficiency resources.


Jannina Aristy
Fieldstone Alliance

Jannina specializes in developing coalitions and networks that promote cultural identity and community integration, design and administration of culturally and linguistically competent services, and multicultural reform initiatives.

September 11, 2008


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