Many nonprofit organizations embark on initiatives focused on diversity, inclusion, equity, cultural competence, cultural humility and/or multiculturalism. At the onset, there is usually a group of people—often a diversity committee—involved in planning the initiative. The people in this group are usually eager for, and deeply invested in, change. Then comes the task of engaging the rest of the organization to build buy-in and shared ownership. But, hmmm? How do we approach this?

Typically, people in the organization are not on the same page about the initiative. In fact, some don’t think it’s necessary. Most people usually agree that it is important to do something to address cultural differences, but they may have divergent of ideas about why, what or how. In spite of the best intentions, cultural norms in many organizations also pose a challenge to multicultural change. Some shared ways of thinking, communicating and behaving may need to shift to make room for the change process.

Creating readiness for change is complex. It involves engaging people’s hearts and minds, while establishing new cultural norms in the organization. Below, we discuss each of these aspects of readiness, which are integrally connected and nonlinear in nature.

Engaging People at the Heart Level

Feelings are often considered out of bounds in a work environment. Yet, our experience with culture and difference is rife with emotions ranging from passion and joy to anger and pain. Authentic multicultural dialogue entails making space for these feelings. Many people in nonprofits are there because the work they do touches their hearts and means something to them. It may be their passion about health, the environment, developing children’s creative potential or any issue that people care about. At its root, a multicultural change initiative is about sharing those things that are critical to our lives so that everyone can flourish and contribute to their full potential.

A sense of personal investment can be established when people reflect on and share experiences around culture. Childhood experiences of having to interpret for immigrant parents at hospitals and clinics, growing up the only Jew in the neighborhood, spending years being homeless, or having a loved one die of cancer due to environmental toxins are among many experiences that motivate people to work for multicultural change. When people share these experiences, there is also a greater appreciation for the cultural strengths that each person brings.

Sharing experiences with culture, privilege and oppression can strengthen working relationships. For example, when people of color share about day-to-day experiences with racism, white people can become more aware of their privilege and learn ways to be stronger allies. White people, especially men, may also talk about the fears they have of being blamed for social injustices. This creates opportunities to build a non-shaming, non-blaming environment.

Ultimately, people are inspired when there is a vision that resonates with them at a personal and emotional level and they are empowered to bring themselves fully to the process. The vision and process for multicultural change can be given life when it grows out of a heart connection to self and others. This prepares people to be active agents of change at all levels of the organization and in its work within the broader community and society.

Mind: Getting Everyone on the Same Page

When an organization launches an initiative, there may be many different ideas about its purpose, goals and what it will look like. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to multicultural change. When people take time to address the following questions, it can help clarify direction and get everyone on the same page. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers to these questions.

Why are culture and difference important to us?

Is it because we want to improve services? Is it because of our commitment to social justice and equity? Is it because we’ve had conflicts, problems or criticisms related to cultural insensitivity or lack of diversity? Is it necessary to stay true to our mission? Is it because we value the opportunity to learn from difference? There are many motivations behind this work, which aren’t mutually exclusive. Being clear about what is driving the initiative and the values behind it can help build buy-in within the organization and chart the path forward.

What would success look like?

What is our ultimate aim? Is it to diversify staff? Build communities? Improve outcomes for underserved populations? How will we know it when we see it? Will we see differences in the outcomes of our work? Will we see increased diversity in our clients, staff, board or community partnerships? Will staff members with diverse backgrounds have a greater voice in the organization? Will the organizational culture be different? Being clear about where the organization is heading can help in the development of change strategies.

How do we approach it?

What strategies focus on personal learning and growth or interpersonal relationships? What work do we do on the institutional and systemic level? How does our work at these different levels connect? Do we focus on concrete targets, such as recruitment goals? How do we engage staff and other stakeholders? Who are the agents of change and how do we cultivate them?

Creating New Cultural Norms

Diversity initiatives sometimes focus recruiting people from diverse backgrounds without changing the culture of the organization. Cultural norms and values embedded within organizations usually mirror dominant society and may get in the way of inclusion and equity. A successful change process requires being intentional about creating inclusive and equitable cultural norms. Here are a few challenges to take into consideration:

  • Communication norms—Many organizations rarely discuss culture and difference. These topics are often seen as “undiscussable” and sometimes charged with fear. A key cultural challenge is normalizing these discussions by creating spaces within the organization for open, non-shaming and non-blaming dialogue. Communication guidelines can be invaluable in this regard.
  • Common language—Organizations often lack a common language for talking about culture and difference. Terms like “cultural competence” “diversity” and “equity”, “privilege” “oppression” and “power” may be seldom used or mean different things to different people. Creating a common language can give people tools for effective communication.
  • Power dynamics—Multicultural change may be hampered by power dynamics. People may be uncomfortable challenging authority or afraid of being judged or labeled. There may be real or perceived threats of negative consequences for speaking out. Organizational leaders can play an important role by encouraging open dialogue and responding non-defensively. It is also important to create forums for all voices to be heard and to acknowledge people when they do speak up.
  • Task-orientation—Most non-profits are driven by the need to get work done, and may have little time for reflection, deeper discussion and exploration. Their ability to survive depends on performance, measured by concrete, tangible results. In addition, there is often a tendency to value product over process. In this context, concrete, tangible achievements and skills may be more highly valued than personal and interpersonal work and skills. A key cultural challenge is to value and make room for the tangible and intangible, as well as a range of skills and knowledge.
  • Need to know—Most workplaces value expertise and know-how. In this context, people may be uncomfortable taking risks, admitting they don’t know something or asking questions. For people to learn, they need permission to admit when they don’t know, to try new things and practice from a beginner’s mind. From a place of humility and ongoing learning, we can gain valuable cultural information and make meaningful connections with people who are different than our selves.

In conclusion, building readiness for multicultural organizational change is a complex process, which can be very rewarding.

If people in the organization are invested in the process, they can share responsibility for its success. This can be achieved by engaging people’s hearts and minds and creating cultural norms that support open communication, learning and action.

Many thanks to my colleague Jacqueline Elena Featherston of Featherston & Associates, who collaborated in shaping these ideas and provided invaluable feedback and editing.

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