Posts Tagged ‘Nonprofit Capacity Building’

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

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A closer look at nonprofit lifecycles

As consultants, one of the major considerations when working with clients is understanding their lifecycle stage – both their current stage and where they are headed – and what this all means for your project. For the fifth session of the Consultant Leadership Forum, Leslie Allen and Ann Goldman of Front Range Source facilitated a lively discussion on this topic and what it means for our work (Thank you, Leslie and Ann!). In response to some of the topics brought up during the session, we have complied some additional resources that may be of interest to CLF members, along with a few highlights from the discussion.

During the group discussions, participants made the following observations (not a full summary, just a few highlights):

When using the lifecycle model, we need to remind clients that moving through the stages is not a linear process and not all organizations will experience each stage. Some organizations will cycle through stages while others may stay within a single stage for long periods of time, based on their evolution as an organization.

Some participants commented that while this kind of model can be helpful, these models miss they dynamic nature of the environment in which organizations operate. A long-standing, well-regarded organization can go from established to decline in a shockingly fast amount of time, just like an innovative start-up can attract attention and grow quite quickly. For some types of organizations, these models do not capture the fluid and fast-moving environments in which some organizations are operating.

The ability to innovate and adapt is becoming an essential organizational capacity for organizations at all stages along the lifecycle continuum. As a consultant, teaching adaptive capacity can be a very important role, especially for projects like strategic planning or fund development.

Some declines cannot be turned around, for both individual organizations and entire niches of organizations (symphony orchestras were mentioned as a type of organization that needs to operate in a radically different way to be viable in the future). Also, as consultants, we can be a good partner in supporting an organization through decline and closure.

To be an effective consultant, it can be important to know where your skills, expertise, and personality best fit among the lifecycles.  Engaging in this kind of analysis and positioning your practice among the organizations that are a good fit for you can increase your success, effectiveness, and happiness in working with clients.

Building Nonprofit Capacity, the book that we used as the basis for the session’s discussion, references two other books on nonprofit lifecycles (both easily available online):

Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity by Susan Kenny-Stevens

Navigating the Organizational Lifecycle: A Capacity-Building Guide for Nonprofit Leaders, published by BoardSource

We handed out a copy of the TCC Group’s nonprofit lifecycle model at the session. If you would like this for future use, you can access a clean copy of the diagram in one of their PowerPoint presentations available online, which you can download here.

During the discussion, the idea of adaptability and adaptive capacity came up multiple times, with a few group members making the important point that being adaptable is essential since nonprofits are operating in increasingly fast-moving contexts. With the lifecycle phases shortened for many organizations, continual reinvention and adaptability can foster greater sustainability and success.  For those of you interested in learning more about adaptive capacity, the TCC Group offers two other good resources (links to PDF articles):

Everyday Leaders: Building the Adaptive Capacity of Nonprofit Organizations: TCC Group Adaptive Capacity

The Sustainability Formula:  TCC Group Sustainability Formula

We know that many of you use these ideas in your practice on a daily basis, so please add information or links to other great references in the comments.

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The decline phase: highly influential yet rarely discussed

“Organizational turnaround and the closing of an organization are the least written about areas of thought and research relating to the nonprofit lifecycle, even though they are the driving force behind what occurs in the other phases of the lifecycle,” say Nonprofit Capacity Building authors, Brothers and Sherman.

If you’ve landed on our home page this week, you know we’re featuring an important read about change management through the lens of nonprofit lifecycles. Why is it essential to know where you land on the nonprofit lifecycle continuum? The authors, Brothers and Sherman, argue that nonprofits can make better decisions and manage change more efficiently if it understands the implications of operating within a particular phase.

While we don’t know why the latter half of the lifecycle is the least common of areas debated in nonprofit lifecycle research, we do know no one wants to be in the middle of a turn-around or closing—they’re exhausting not to mention emotional for everyone involved. Perhaps that’s the reason why this passage from the mature phase to the decline phase captures so little attention.

So, in an effort to boost the minority opinion, I asked Brothers and Sherman about the “decline phase” of a nonprofit lifecycle as it relates to long-standing organizations and the economy.

Anne Sherman

JB & AS: Growth for growth’s sake is a common error, and an understandable one. In the for-profit sector, there is a principle that the company that isn’t growing is by definition declining. Too often this maxim is misapplied in the nonprofit sector, where competition and profit certainly have roles to play, but differently than in the private sector. We can never lose sight of the fact that achieving mission is our bottom line. In fairness, funding for nonprofits can be capricious, unpredictable and irrational. So there is some logic in pursuing funds opportunistically. But that’s not really a sustainable path. Mature or well-established organizations that grow without careful attention to strategy or desired impact increase their risk of decline.

John Brothers

JB & AS: We think most would agree the recession has exposed or exacerbated flaws in nonprofit business models. We hear a lot about how the greatest challenge nonprofits have faced is a decline in giving. Interestingly, the number of nonprofits that have gone “out of business” has been far smaller than what was predicted in 2008-2009. Just as it is really hard for nonprofits to find financial sustainability, it also appears to be really hard for the market to “weed out” less effective or weaker organizations entirely. The book discusses when organizations hit decline and the different ways they can enter it. This, if using lifecycle thought, can be discussed as the arc of the lifecycle.

Ask yourself if your nonprofit is on the path of growth for growth’s sake or attention to strategy and desired impact on your mission.

CausePlanet members: Don’t forget to register for our next live author interview with Kari Dunn Saratovsky, coauthor of Cause for Change. We’ll discuss how Millennial engagement should be at the forefront of your fundraising plans as well as a primary consideration for your organizational culture.  Bring your questions and join us on your computer or mobile device on Wednesday, September 25 at 11 a.m. CST.

See also:

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement

Fundraising and the Next Generation

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