Dear Laurin,

During the past decade my organization received funding that enabled us to hire staff for targeted outreach and direct service to Latina and African American communities. While this has greatly expanded our service delivery in these communities, it has also created silos among these programs and inhibited the sharing of learning, support and best practices across all programs. We are an organization with a small staff and a large base of volunteers. How can we work to overcome these silos and build a multicultural organization where all paid and unpaid service providers share learnings and support each other?


Dear Pamela,

Thanks for bringing up an issue that impacts many organizations. Your situation highlights that the presence of diverse staff in an organization does not automatically lead to strong multicultural working relationships. There are great opportunities for learning, growth and stronger performance when people come together across program area and job function.

Silos often develop within organizations regardless of whether there are ethnic-specific programs. Silos happen when the program or department develops an identity of its own without a strong shared identification with the organization and its mission. Silos may be seen as a reflection of a tendency to develop organizations as sets of separate functions, rather than communities of people working together. In this era of shrinking resources tensions may build as people within these silos worry about the sustainability of their jobs and the work that they do.

As you mentioned, there is great value in having programs and staff who focus in specific communities. It allows you to tailor your outreach and provide linguistically and cultural responsive services. The challenge you mention often occurs when the people in these programs do not fully support one another. For example, one organization had a sole staff person whose job was to provide support services for the Latino community. She found herself isolated and overwhelmed in her efforts to support people who were dealing with a life threatening illness, often with limited economic resources and access to care. In the organization, each person’s job was seen as a separate function, so there was nobody else in the organization responsible for supporting her. In situations like this, social divisions and inequities based on race, class, gender, language or other differences may be further exacerbated.

The good news is that organizations such as yours have tremendous potential to build community and multicultural connections based on a shared mission. Below, I will outline a few principles and examples of how this can occur.

  1. Create an identity that fosters shared ownership. One key to building a cohesive organization is shifting the way people think about the organization, it’s work and the people involved. In one organization the people recognized that their role was not just to provide services within their individual program areas; it also entailed building a supportive healing community. They began to ask for and provide support for each other across program areas. The staff also shifted the way they thought about volunteers. Rather than thinking of volunteers as people who helped the staff do their work, they began viewing them as people who were invested in the organization and were an integral part of the work. This shift in thinking occurred in their language and ways of talking about and conceptualizing their work and themselves. It also developed through activities where people engaged with the organization came together across program area and function to interact and learn from each other.
  2. Build authentic relationships among people as an integral part of the work. In one organization, the staff recognized that their work required relationship building amongst themselves as well as with the people they served. They set a goal of strengthening communication in the organization and began building the capacity and openness to communicate amongst themselves. They practiced using guidelines for multicultural communication, taking risks and “getting real” with each other. This was possible because of a shift in thinking (Principle 1, above); they recognized that their relationship building was a crucial part of their work. The relationship built among staff built a foundation to model authentic communication with volunteers, board members and community partners.
  3. Establish ongoing forums for shared learning, growth and community building. One organization conducted a series of dialogues involving staff, board and volunteers. Through these dialogues they built connections among people who had been functioning in separate silos. Interpretation was provided to enable people to communicate across different languages. People who were part of the organization and its community had the opportunity to share experiences from their work, explore commonalities and differences, and learn from each other. These forums provide an opportunity for building a sense of shared community among the people who are actively engaged with the organization as well as the broader communities they serve. They recognized the importance of BOTH maintaining distinct program areas and support for different populations AND building bridges across difference to create a multicultural community.

In these tough economic times, many organizations are rethinking how they do their work. I have had the privilege of working with several organizations that are maintaining a steadfast commitment to multicultural principles in the face of uncertainty and loss. While challenging, these times may also present opportunities to develop new ways of working that unify organizations and the people they interact with. Most non-profit and public organizations are concerned with issues of health, well-being and quality of life. When organizations build authentic communication and connection they can bring this to the communities they serve. By conceptualizing community building, learning and relationship building as integral to the organization’s work we can build healthier, more sustainable organizations and communities.

All my best to you and the amazing people you work with!


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