“Barrier,” by Mirjana Veljovic

January 25, 2018; Generocity

“The lack of evidence around the way high-performing organizations remove cultural barriers stems largely from a lack of effort to see culture as a serious and measurable factor in service delivery,” writes Mission Incorporated CEO Lawanda Horton-Sauter in Generocity. Horton-Sauter argues, however, that this is a mistake, as cultural identity strongly influences “the way people participate in and engage with their community and the organizations that shape them.”

In short, “being responsive to the needs of a changing population,” Horton-Sauter contends, requires not just taking on policy, but organizational culture, whether externally focused on the people served or internally focused on leadership and program design. Policy is important, but it is much more likely to be effective if it is embedded in common organizational cultural understandings.

One challenge Horton-Sauter identifies is what she labels “cultural incapacity,” which she defines as a “nonprofit or individual’s lack of capacity to help minority clients or communities due to biases and a paternal attitude toward cultural behaviors and values that are not characteristic of the mainstream.” Horton-Sauter adds that a “culturally competent organization uses data to assess the outcomes and evaluation methods to ensure that not only is program design culturally relevant and appropriate, but that program outreach and execution are, too.”

Being culturally proficient requires focusing on building cultural skills in staff training and onboarding, as well as “staying aware of changes in the political and social environment that could have an impact on cultural values and behaviors” among those who the nonprofit aims to serve. A culturally competent nonprofit, Horton-Sauter adds, is “deliberate in its inclusiveness in hiring, training, day-to-day operations, program outreach, design and delivery and regularly assesses its responsiveness to the cultural needs of its staff and the people it serves.”

Even if an organization is culturally competent, it can still suffer from blind spots if the nonprofit prioritizes dominant-culture approaches and practices while ignoring other approaches. In particular, Horton-Sauter cautions that the call for “evidence-based” approaches can privilege those who are fortunate enough to have money to hire evaluators and document outcomes. To create more flexibility, Horton-Sauter recommends that nonprofits adopt “an evidence-informed approach,” as this better “allows for flexibility in program design and a customizable approach to service delivery that recognizes and honors cultural differences.”

Horton-Sauter examines the data from the 2017 Leading with Intent survey of 1,378 nonprofit executives and 381 board chairs from BoardSource. A central finding from this report is that very little progress has been made among nonprofits in diversifying nonprofit leadership at either the board or executive level. Of course, NPQ has written extensively on this survey and, with BoardSource, has cosponsored a webinar series to promote change in the sector.

Horton-Sauter cites the BoardSource data that shows that many organizations fail to make a real effort to become more inclusive, but, Horton-Sauter adds, “Even well-meaning organizations struggle with putting diversity, inclusion and cultural competency into practice.”

Often progress is blocked by systems that have escaped inquiry. For example, Horton-Sauter notes that, “A requirement that job applicants must have ‘X’ years managerial experience in a sector where less than five percent of people of color have been granted leadership positions means that many people of color will be ineligible for this position even if they have a track record of high performance in direct service positions.” Horton-Sauter emphasizes that, “Inclusive leadership comes from a commitment to nurturing leadership skills and competency in diverse populations.”

Horton-Sauter concludes with a list of basic steps that nonprofits can take to increase their inclusivity and become more culturally competent:

  1. Cultural humility: Confront your bias.
  2. Cultural curiosity: Activate your cultural education.
  3. Collecting data: Get all the facts (internal/external, objective/subjective).
  4. Program outreach design implementation: Know who to serve, how to find them, and how to give them what they need.
  5. Program measurement considerations: Learn how to analyze data with cultural considerations.
  6. Workforce diversity and competency: Recognize that diversity without competency is not enough.
  7. Cost: Recognize that part of a commitment to cultural competency is allocating resource[s] to building cultural capacity.

—Steve Dubb