A critical asset of high-performing nonprofits: cultural competency

Cultural competency is a critical asset of every high-performing nonprofit yet little exists on the topic within the publishing world. Author Patricia St. Onge would argue that’s because cultural competency is a highly complex and challenging aspiration.

In her book, Embracing Cultural Competency, Patricia St. Onge explains there are five reasons why achieving competency in this arena is such a tricky prospect:

Paying attention to culture is considered by some to be among the “soft” skills that are often seen as less important than “hard” skills, such as fiscal management, fundraising and governance.

This conversation takes time.

It is largely an emotional interaction.

Our experiences are so different.

Many communities of color tend to be weighted down by internalized oppression.

Increasing your cultural competency is an ongoing journey that nonprofit executives must take because they know their outcomes will involve a more inclusive, connected, and effective organization.

In Embracing Cultural Competency, the author presents a useful framework that facilitates this journey and emphasizes the “three Cs” of effective capacity building:

Context: understanding historical and cultural realities that relate to the current situation
Community: using a process that stays centered in a group of people who face their own unique challenges and possibilities
Change: altering conditions in ways that advance equity for people and communities of color.

Cultural Competency as Discovering Context

Patricia St. Onge first describes a helpful diagram of concentric circles around an inner circle. The inner circle should contain a shared value or common goal with all the cultural groups orbiting around it. The dominant group should be one of the many circles, not the inner circle. Affirming all perspectives and giving attention to all cultural perspectives, including your own, will lead to cultural competency.

The author provides nine ways to discover key contexts associated with cultural competency. Here are two:

1)   See differences as always present. St. Onge shares an exercise to illustrate this point. She hands shapes of different colors out to a group, each one designating cultural characteristics, including birth order, generation, religious tradition, sexual identity, class, ethnicity/race and geographic origin. After each person on a team or in a training chooses his/her combination of colored shapes, very few will have the same handful, illustrating that diversity exists everywhere.

2)   Locate your own cultures. The author encourages everyone to name three cultures to which s/he belongs and list overt and subtle attributes associated with each. She stresses that if you don’t understand the cultural perspectives you bring, then you will assume they are the norm and will not be able to relate to/understand other viewpoints. St. Onge also provides a self-assessment in Resource F in the Appendices.

Cultural Competency as a Community Process

Cultural competency should be a process that is inextricably linked with good capacity building. It is a way of organizing, not just a collection of exercises. To incorporate cultural competency as a process, St. Onge recommends fifteen different actions or ways of thinking. Two examples follow:

1)   Base cultural competency on intention and values. Shared values with the community are critical to this process. St. Onge provides a list of core values for capacity building (e.g., being honest with self, acknowledging power imbalances, looking for connections, etc.) and questions for self-assessment (e.g., What cultural lens do I bring with me? What assumptions am I making about people? How are the seats arranged? etc.) that can help with this process. Just having diverse people present is not enough.

2)   See everyone as a learner; therefore, the consultant is not the expert, especially on the many aspects of culture. Fostering a sense of curiosity and openness can help avoid hurt feelings and help everyone learn, as in framing an observation in this way: “I wonder what life experience that person has had that would lead him/her to that conclusion.” Also, establishing good listening habits is crucial.

Cultural Competency as Changing Institutions

In this third element of the “three Cs” is change. Patricia St. Onge moves beyond a focus on individual and community habits to the bigger sphere of “disrupting historical patterns of inequity…to achieve social change.” She covers several issues that contribute to questions surrounding privilege, power, oppression and systemic change. Here is an excerpt about privilege:

Privilege is largely unconscious and often people don’t understand they have it. St. Onge shares a privilege continuum she uses as an exercise. People must stand on a continuum from highly privileged to underprivileged. The movement toward their perceived place usually creates some confusion and allows people to realize there are many different types of privilege. Many people in the exercise also recognize a fallacy: the “zero-sum proposition: your gain is my loss,” or, in other words, if a person gives up privilege he/she loses it. Therefore, creating capacity is about extending privilege to everyone, since it is not earned but granted. This involves not only the underprivileged groups working for equality, but also the privileged groups recognizing their advantages and working toward equality, too, although the process can be painful and uncomfortable on both sides. Being present and being an ally are important states to pursue.

Embracing Cultural Competency is a guide to better understanding that cultural competency is not a soft skill but a core asset. Consultants and capacity builders who work with nonprofits and foundations will find the author’s views accessible and informative. St. Onge and her contributing authors help you tackle urgent issues that can transform capacity builders into change agents in our sector. The authors invite you to think of cultural competency as an adventure and this book as a roadmap. The destination is a just society.

See also:

Community: The Structure of Belonging

Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age

Working Across Generations: The Future of Nonprofit Leadership

Leave a reply


Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.