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Learn how to build culturally competent organizations.


  • What is a culturally competent organization?

  • Why is it important to be culturally competent?

  • When does an organization need to become culturally competent?

  • How do you create a culturally competent organization?

A local neighborhood found itself in the middle of a drastic demographic shift. Its residents, who used to be primarily people of European descent, is now 30% African American and 10% Hispanic. The neighborhood association, which was used to operating within a European cultural context, is struggling with engaging the new residents. The association's board has put ads in the local newspaper about the association's activities, posted announcements about meeting times, and mailed out newsletters. Yet, its membership has not increased nor diversified.

The new residents view the neighborhood association as an organization that is run by and serves the European American residents only. The association has not acknowledged or welcomed the new residents in any of its materials. It has made no effort to contact the African American and Hispanic leaders and to invite them to join the neighborhood association. It was continuing to operate the way it has always operated without realizing that the newcomers have their own forms of social organization and ways to support their members. In order for the neighborhood association to engage the newcomers, it had to learn about the social organization and leadership of the new groups and ways to communicate with them in a culturally appropriate manner.

Each organization and its individual members should keep in mind that change is not easy for humans. Many of us resist it and are dragged into the process kicking and screaming -- and that makes it difficult for everyone else. But when we learn to understand others we improve our chances of making things better in an increasingly multicultural world. There will be situations where people can be right on both sides of an issue or belief -- sometimes there may not be one right answer to a question. It is essential to approach the change process knowing that compromise, patience, and understanding must be a central theme. This leads us to the beginning of building culturally competent organizations.

What is a culturally competent organization?

What is "culture?"

Culture is defined as the shared traditions, beliefs, customs, history, folklore, and institutions of a group of people. Culture is shared by people of the same ethnicity, language, nationality, or religion. It's a system of rules that are the base of what we are and affect how we express ourselves as part of a group and as individuals.

We all develop in some type of culture. Our environment determines what we learn, how we learn it, and the rules for living with others. These rules are transmitted from one generation to the next and are often adapted to the times and locale. The rules are absorbed by children as they develop, whether through word-of-mouth or just "osmosis."

Organizations have a "culture" of policies, procedures, programs, and processes, and incorporate certain values, beliefs, assumptions, and customs. Organizational cultures largely echo mainstream culture in its sense of time orientation, perception, and use of time. An organizational culture may not lend itself to cultural competence, so that's where skill building comes in. A culturally competent organization brings together knowledge about different groups of people -- and transforms it into standards, policies, and practices that make everything work.

What is the difference between "cultural knowledge," "cultural awareness," "cultural sensitivity," and "cultural competence?"

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Roxbury, Massachusetts, is an example of a culturally-competent organization (The President's Initiative on Race, 1999). Under the direction of a community-elected board that reflects the diversity of the community, the organization has been able to create an inclusive community that promotes equity and social justice for all its residents.

There are four levels to these concepts:

  • "Cultural knowledge" means that you know about some cultural characteristics, history, values, beliefs, and behaviors of another ethnic or cultural group.
  • "Cultural awareness" is the next stage of understanding other groups -- being open to the idea of changing cultural attitudes.
  • "Cultural sensitivity" is knowing that differences exist between cultures, but not assigning values to the differences (better or worse, right or wrong). Clashes on this point can easily occur, especially if a custom or belief in question goes against the idea of multiculturalism. Internal conflict (intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational) is likely to occur at times over this issue. Conflict won't always be easy to manage, but it can be made easier if everyone is mindful of the organizational goals.
  • "Cultural competence" brings together the previous stages -- and adds operational effectiveness. A culturally competent organization has the capacity to bring into its system many different behaviors, attitudes, and policies and work effectively in cross-cultural settings to produce better outcomes.

Cultural competence is non-threatening because it acknowledges and validates who people are. By focusing on the organization's culture, it removes the need to place blame and assume guilt. Since becoming culturally competent focuses on the "how-to" of aligning policies and practices with goals, everyone is involved in the process. This "inside-out" model relieves the outsiders (or excluded groups) from the responsibility of doing all the adapting.

A Cultural Competence Model: 5 Essential Principles

1. Valuing diversity

Valuing diversity means accepting and respecting differences between and within cultures. We often presume that a common culture is shared between members of racial, linguistic, and religious groups, but this may not be true. A group might share historical and geographical experiences, but individuals may share only physical appearance, language, or spiritual beliefs. Our cultural assumptions can lead us to wrong conclusions. As people move to new areas and meld with other cultures it creates a kaleidoscope of subcultures within racial groups. Gender, locale, and socioeconomic status can sometimes be more powerful than racial factors. For example, a Vietnamese couple may immigrate to America, and raise their children in a suburban area. As a result, the children may identify much more with European American popular culture than the Vietnamese culture of their parents. Understanding situations such as this can lead to a better understanding of the complexity of diversity.

2. Conducting cultural self-assessment

The most important actions to be conscious of are usually the ones we take for granted. For instance, physical distance during social interactions varies by culture. If a staff member of an organization routinely touches the arm of whomever she is talking to, this might be misread in some cultures. Such miscommunication can be avoided if the organization does cultural self-assessment. Each organization has a culture. Surveys and discussion can help members become more aware of the organization's way of doing things and can help it adjust to other cultures. This assessment is a continuing process towards cultural competence.

3. Understanding the dynamics of difference

Many factors can affect cross-cultural interactions. Bias due to historical cultural experiences can explain some current attitudes. For example, Native Americans and African Americans, among other groups, have experienced discrimination and unfair treatment from dominant cultures. Mistrust coming out of these experiences may be passed on to the next generations of these groups, but ignored within the dominant culture. An oppressed group may feel mistrust toward the dominant culture, but members of the dominant culture may be unaware of it or not understand it. Organizations planning to interact with varying cultures need awareness of such a dynamic if they want to be effective. Remember that organizations can be intergenerational. A group that worked with an ineffective, culturally incompetent organization 15 years ago, may not know that the group has the same name but is in a "second life" -- a new staff, a new board, and a new approach to working with the community. This means the organization has some work to do, and must be aware of this dynamic in order to be newly effective. Being proactive rather than reactive about change produces a synergistic organization. Anticipating change is a basic dynamic in the development of synergy. Synergy is more than just teamwork. It's the magic that happens when people are truly working together, understanding one another deeply, and in total agreement about their beliefs and goals, at least as far as their work goes. Synergy happens only if people treat each other with respect and effectively communicate with each other.

4. Institutionalizing cultural knowledge

Cultural knowledge should be integrated into every facet of an organization. Staff must be trained and be able to effectively utilize knowledge gained. Policies should be responsive to cultural diversity. Program materials should reflect positive images of all cultures.

5. Adapting to diversity

Values, behaviors, attitudes, practices, policies, and structures that make it possible for cross-cultural communication guide a culturally competent organization. When you recognize, respect, and value all cultures and integrate those values into the system, culturally competent organizations can meet the needs of diverse groups.

What are the types of diversity in an organization?

There are all types of diversity in an organization. However, some types of diversity have a larger impact on organizations than others because they have historical significance. These types of diversity are associated with a history of inequity and injustice where not every person or group has been treated equally because of them. These types of diversity include:

  • Marginalized or socially excluded groups
  • Nationality
  • Ethnicity
  • Native language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Social class
  • Spiritual beliefs and practice
  • Physical and mental ability

Other types of diversity that should be considered, but tend to be less salient include:

  • Age
  • Educational status
  • Family status
  • Health status
  • Style
  • Skills and talents
  • Customs
  • Ideas
  • Military experience
  • National, regional, or other geographical area
  • Ownership of property
  • Occupational status
  • Socioeconomic status

Why is it important to be culturally competent?

Diversity is reality. We are all connected through the increasing globalization of communications, trade, and labor practices. Changes in one part of the world affect people everywhere. Considering our increasing diversity and interconnected problems, working together seems to be the best strategy for accomplishing our goals. Because social and economic change is coming faster and faster, organizations are understanding the need for cultural competence. We're realizing that if we don't improve our skills we're asking for organizational and cultural gridlock.

Studies show that new entrants to the workforce and communities increasingly will be people of color, immigrants, and white women because of differential birth rates and immigration patterns.

There are many benefits to diversity, such as the rich resource of alternative ideas for how to do things, the opportunity for contact with people from all cultures and nationalities that are living in your community, the aid in strategizing quick response to environmental change, and a source for hope and success in managing our work and survival.

Benefits of building an organization's cultural competence are:

  • Increases respect and mutual understanding among those involved.
  • Increases creativity in problem-solving through new perspectives, ideas, and strategies.
  • Decreases unwanted surprises that might slow progress.
  • Increases participation and involvement of other cultural groups.
  • Increases trust and cooperation.
  • Helps overcome fear of mistakes, competition, or conflict. For instance, by understanding and accepting many cultures, everyone is more likely to feel more comfortable in general and less likely to feel the urge to look over their shoulders to be sure they are being "appropriate" in majority terms.
  • Promotes inclusion and equality.

When does an organization need to become culturally competent?

An organization needs to become culturally competent when there is a problem or crisis, a shared vision, and a desired outcome.

An organization is ready to become culturally competent when groups and potential leaders that will be collaborating have been identified, the needs of the cultural groups are identified, the organization knows what was done before and how it affected the groups involved, and the organization is open to learning and adapting to better fit current needs.

How do you create a culturally competent organization?

Indicators of cultural competence:

  • Recognizing the power and influence of culture
  • Understanding how each of our backgrounds affects our responses to others
  • Not assuming that all members of cultural groups share the same beliefs and practices
  • Acknowledging how past experiences affect present interactions
  • Building on the strengths and resources of each culture in an organization
  • Allocating resources for leadership and staff development in the area of cultural awareness, sensitivity, and understanding
  • Actively eliminating prejudice in policies and practices
  • Willing to share power among leaders of different cultural backgrounds
  • Evaluating the organization's cultural competence on a regular basis

Cultural differences can either help or hurt the way an organization functions. Creating multicultural organizations makes us deal with differences and use them to strengthen our efforts. To reach these goals you need a plan for action.

Action Steps for Achieving Cultural Competence

How do you start this process? If achieving cultural competence is a top-down organizational mandate, some would say it's less likely to happen. But support from the top should be part of it. Getting everyone to "buy in" can be aided with a committee representing all levels in an organization. Such a committee can establish and facilitate the following action steps. If people at all organizational levels are involved more people are likely to be influenced to become more culturally competent. But, the process can be complicated by the fact that some people don't want to be more culturally sensitive or don't understand why the issue is important; be mindful of these realities as the process ensues.

  • Develop support for change throughout the organization (who wants change and who doesn't?)
  • Identify the cultural groups to be involved (who needs to be involved in the planning, implementation, and reinforcement of the change?)
  • Identify barriers to working with the organization (what is currently not working? What will stop you or slow you down?)
  • Assess your current level of cultural competence (what knowledge, skills, and resources can you build on? Where are the gaps? )
  • Identify the resource needed (how much funding is required to bring about the change? Where can you find the resources?)
  • Develop goals and implementation steps and deadlines for achieving them (who can do what, when, and how?).
  • Commit to an ongoing evaluation of progress (measuring outcomes) and be willing to respond to change (what does progress and success look like? What are the signs that will tell you that the organization is on the right track?).

How to begin building a multicultural organization

Form a committee.

This Cultural Competence Committee (CCC) within your organization should have representation from policy making, administration, service delivery, and community levels. The committee can serve as the primary governing body for planning, implementing, and evaluating organizational cultural competence.

Write a mission statement.

Be sure that the mission statement commits to cultural competence as an integral part of all of the organization's activities. The CCC should be involved in developing this statement.

Find out what similar organizations have done and develop partnerships.

Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. Other organizations may have already begun the journey toward developing and implementing culturally competent systems. Meet with these organizations, pick their brains, and see if they will continue to work with you to develop your cultural competence. Then adapt the processes and information that are consistent with your needs to your organization.

Use free resources.

Aggressively pursue and use information available from federally funded technical assistance centers that catalog information on cultural competence.

Do a comprehensive cultural competence assessment of your organization.

Determine which instruments best match the needs and interests of your organization. Use the assessment results to develop a long-term plan with measurable goals and objectives to incorporate culturally competent principles, policies, structures, and practices into all aspects of your organization. Among others, this may include changes in your mission statement, policies, procedures, administration, staffing patterns, service delivery practices, outreach, telecommunications and information dissemination systems, and professional development activities.

Find out which cultural groups exist in your community and if they access community services.

What are the cultural, language, racial, and ethnic groups within the area served by your organization? Then find out if these groups access services and if they are satisfied with what they get.

Have a brown bag lunch to get your staff involved in discussion and activities about cultural competence.

The object of this get-together is to get your staff members to think about their attitudes, beliefs, and values related to cultural diversity and cultural competence. Invite a guest speaker.

Ask your personnel about their staff development needs.

Find out what your organization's staff members perceive as their staff development needs with regard to interacting with cultural groups in your area.

 Assign part of your budget to staff development programming in cultural competence.

Analyze your budget to see where there are opportunities for staff development through participation in conferences, workshops, and seminars on cultural competence. Then commit to provide ongoing staff training and support for developing cultural competence.

Keep in mind: When you are asking the staff to come together to discuss their attitudes, beliefs, and values related to cultural diversity and competence, consider an outside expert facilitator. The staff members' comments will typically reflect their exposure to other cultures and their prejudices. Someone might get offended. If hurt feelings, disagreements, or conflicts are unresolved when the meeting is over, the staff members' job performance could be affected.

Include cultural competency requirement in job descriptions.

Cultural competency requirements should be apparent from the beginning of the hiring process. Discuss the importance of cultural awareness and competency with potential employees.

Be sure your facility's location is accessible and respectful of difference.

An organization should be certain that the facility's location, hours, and staffing are accessible to disabled people and that the physical appearance of the facility is respectful of different cultural groups. Be sensitive to the fact that certain seating arrangements or decor might be appropriate or inappropriate depending upon the cultural group. Be aware of communication differences between cultures. For example, in many racial and ethnic groups, elders are highly respected, so it is important to know how to show respect.

Collect resource materials on culturally diverse groups for your staff to use.

There are many free online resources, as well as printed materials. Visit the library and talk with people at similar organizations to learn about resources.

Build a network of natural helpers, community "informants," and other "experts."

They have valuable knowledge of the cultural, linguistic, racial, and ethnic groups served by your organization. Effective organizations must do strategic outreach and membership development. Your organization should set ground rules that maintain a safe and nurturing atmosphere. And the structure and operating procedures that you set should reinforce equity. For example, create leadership opportunities for everyone, especially people of color and women. Your organization should engage in activities that are culturally sensitive or that directly fight bias and domination by the majority culture. Before proceeding, your members should complete

How to manage the dynamics of building culturally competent organizations

Gillian Kaye and Tom Wolff's book, From the Ground Up! Is an excellent source of information about working in diverse organizations.

Vision and context

It can take time and effort for groups with historically negative relationships to trust each other and begin to work together effectively. A common problem is cultural dominance and insensitivity. Frequently, people of color find that when they are in the minority in an organization, they are asked to teach others about their culture, or to explain racism and oppression -- rather than everyone taking an active part in educating themselves. In organizations where white people are the majority, people of color may be expected to conform to white standards and to be bicultural and bilingual. This accommodation takes enormous energy to sustain. Members of a culturally competent organization do not approach fellow members with stereotypical attitudes or generalize about an entire people based on an experience of one person. Involve and include people from all cultures in the process of developing a vision for the organization.

Recruitment and outreach

Include diverse groups of people from your community at the organization's inception. This can ensure that your organization's development reflects many perspectives. It can also minimize real or perceived tokenism, paternalism, and inequality among the people who join later. Recognize that changing the appearance of your membership is only the first step in understanding and respecting all cultures. Develop and use ground rules that establish shared norms, reinforce constructive and respectful conduct, and protect against damaging behavior. Encourage and help people to develop qualities such as patience, empathy, trust, tolerance, and a nonjudgmental attitude.

Diversity training

Become aware of the cultural diversity of the organization. Try to understand all its dimensions and seek the commitment of those involved to nurture cultural diversity. Address the myths, stereotypes, and cultural differences that interfere with the full contribution of members.

Keep in mind:
Diversity trainings are typically one-time events. These trainings alone will not change a staff person's behavior or an organization's practices. It is important to have other strategies that will reinforce and sustain behavioral and policy changes.

Organizational structure and operating procedures

Share the work and share the power. Create systems that ensure equity in voice, responsibility, and visibility for all groups. The usual hierarchy with a group or leader in charge may create a power inequity, so create a decision-making structure in which all cultural groups have a voice at all levels. Find ways to involve everyone using different kinds of meetings, such as dialogue by phone, mail, or e-mail. Structure equal time for different groups to speak at meetings. Develop operational policies and programs that confront and challenge racism, sexism, and other forms of intolerance. Conduct criticism/self-criticism of meetings to build a common set of expectations, values, and operating methods.


Communication is the basic tool that the organization can use to unite people. Use inclusive and valuing language and quote diverse sources. Learn and apply the cultural etiquette of your members. Learn to read different nonverbal behaviors. Do not assume common understanding and knowledge of unwritten rules. Prohibit disrespectful name -calling and use of stereotypes. Respect and use personal names. Use humor appropriately -- laugh with each other, not at each other. If humor strikes a sour note, the person bothered should make their feelings known.

Learn to listen for what is being said, and not what you want to hear. Invite others to be part of the discussion. Do not misjudge people because of their accent or grammar. Test for understanding by asking questions to be certain you understand the message. Adapt your communication style to fit the situation -- conflicts sometimes arise simply because of the style of a communication rather than its content.


  • Some people come from cultures that do not encourage confrontation, self-disclosure, or self-praise. This is especially true in Asian cultures. Be sensitive to these traditions when you consider activities to help people get to know each other or to confront a problem. Allow sufficient time for people from such cultures to feel comfortable.
  • In some cultures, it is impolite to refer to someone older than you by his or her name. Check with another person from the same culture with whom you feel comfortable or is of the same age as you.

How to bridge language barriers:

  • Arrange for bilingual translators or volunteers for meetings.
  • Determine whether meetings will be bilingual. If at least half of the group speaks another language consider breaking into smaller groups with the groups conducted in different languages as needed. If language groups are large enough consider conducting separate meetings with the same agenda and issues covered.
  • Be certain that all organization materials are produced in all languages used by organization members.
  • Use a multicultural vocabulary with terms and phrases that describe cultural relations as they should be. Be prepared for words to change actions, and actions to change the organization in real ways.

Keep in mind:

Some words can have different meanings and values in different cultures. Words like "action" and "power" in some cultures remind the members of threats from the police, prison camps, war, etc. A word like "asset" typically refers to a house or a bank account. Ask participants to describe the meaning of a word before making any assumptions.

 Understanding "different, but similar"

The members of your organization probably have fewer differences than similarities. An appreciation and acceptance of both commonalities and differences are essential to effective working relationships.

Maintaining the commitment

Your organization will become more connected with the community that it serves if it states publicly that having a diverse work force is a top priority. Continue to re-evaluate the various components that address the awareness, understanding, communication, and nurturing of your culturally diverse organization.

Providing strong leadership

Develop a variety of leadership opportunities and a way for leaders to work together in your organization. Steering committees with different committee chairpersons is a good way to enable many people to function as leaders and encourages the interchange of leadership styles. Include different types of people in leadership positions to further the organization's multicultural vision and values. Cultivate new leadership by helping people gain competence in new areas. These opportunities can be structured in shared tasks and mentoring by pairing up leaders with less experienced people so that skills are transferred and confidence increased.

Providing activities

Integrate aspects of different cultures into all activities, rather than holding isolated "international dinners," for example. Most activities lend themselves to a multicultural approach: social events, sports, street fairs, talent shows, campaigns, neighborhood improvement projects, demonstrations, and lobbying efforts. Consciously develop projects that people from different cultures can work on together. Conduct special activities to educate everyone about different cultural concerns -- e.g. forums, conferences, panels, and organized dialogues. If activities are not attracting a diverse crowd, try running special events geared specifically to different groups, led and organized by representatives of these groups. The organization or community populations should determine the issues and events that they feel are important, so don't assume you know what is best.

In Summary

Building culturally competent organizations means changing how people think about other cultures, how they communicate, and how they operate. It means that the structure, leadership, and activities of an organization must reflect many values, perspectives, styles, and priorities. Changing how an organization looks is only the first step. A culturally competent organization also emphasizes the advantages of cultural diversity, celebrates the contributions of each culture, encourages the positive outcomes of interacting with many cultures, and supports the sharing of power among people from different cultures. To really change, an organization has to commit to continuing programming, evaluation, and the creation of a place that is inclusive of all cultures and celebrates diversity.

Tim Brownlee
Kien Lee

Online Resources

Brown University Training MaterialsCultural Competence and Community Studies: Concepts and Practices for Cultural Competence. The Northeast Education Partnership provides online access to PowerPoint training slides on topics in research ethics and cultural competence in environmental research. These have been created for professionals/students in environmental sciences, health, and policy; and community-based research. If you are interested in receiving an electronic copy of one the presentations, just download their Materials Request Form (found on the main Training Presentations page under "related files"), complete the form, and email it to

Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice

The Center for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services collects and describes early childhood/early intervention resources and serves as point of exchange for users.

Culture Matters is a cross-cultural training workbook developed by the Peace Corps to help new volunteers acquire the knowledge and skills to work successfully and respectfully in other cultures.
(Cultural Competence)

The International & Cross-Cultural Evaluation Topical Interest Group, an organization that is affiliated with the American Evaluation Association, provides evaluators who are interested in cross-cultural issues with opportunities for professional development.

The Multicultural Pavilion offers resources and dialogue for educators, students and activists on all aspects of multicultural education.

The National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University increases the capacity of health care and mental health programs to design, implement and evaluate culturally and linguistically competent service delivery systems. Publications and web links available.

National Technical Assistance Center (Networks newsletter)

Ohio State University FactSheets (Working with Diverse Cultures)

Parents Helping Parents, Inc.(Indicators of Cultural Competence)

SIL International makes available "The Stranger’s Eyes," an article that speaks to cultural sensitivity with questions that can be strong tools for discussion.

University of California -- San Diego HR Diversity Education Program(The Cultural Competence Model)

Print Resources

American Association of Retired Persons. (1994). How to develop a diversity commitment. [Brochure]. Washington, DC: Work Force Programs Department.
Hogan-Garcia, M. The four skills of cultural diversity competence: a process for understanding and practice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999.

Carter, R. (Ed.). (1999). Addressing cultural issues in organizations: Beyond the corporate context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. (1997). Culture and organizations. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hughes, D., Seidman, E., & Williams, N. (1993). Cultural phenomena and the research enterprise: toward a culturally anchored methodology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 21 (6), 687-703.

Kaye, G. & Wolff, T. (ed.). (1995). From the ground up! a workbook on coalition building and community development. Chapter 5: multicultural issues in coalitions. Amherst, MA: AHEC Community Partners. (Available from Tom Wolff and Associates.)

The President's Initiative on Race. (1999). Pathways to one America in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Telesford, M. (1994, Summer). Tips for accessing and involving families of color in a significant way. Focal Point. 8, 11.