The What, Why and How of Cultural Competence

February 28, 2017

Community demographics are continuing to evolve nationwide, making the need for culturally competent organizations more prevalent than ever. In this article, we will discuss what this means for you as a provider of social services, and how your organization can progress in this realm by exploring the what, why and how of cultural competence.

The what

First, let’s define cultural competence. It can loosely be defined as the ability to respect, engage, and understand individuals who have different cultural or belief systems, where the elements of culture include, but are not limited to: age, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, geographic location, language, political status, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, tribal affiliation, and religion.

Tip: See more definitions of cultural competence from these experts in the field.

The why

The term competency in regards to culturally responsive practice has been debated. Can one ever truly be culturally competent? There might not be a consensus, but as a provider of social services promoting cultural competence will enable you to better meet the needs of the individuals, children, and families you serve. Understanding your community and those you serve facilitates stronger partnerships, resulting in higher quality programs and service delivery. Research shows that organizational culture impacts its effectiveness. An organization that commits to cultural competence is not only better equipped to successfully address community service gaps and needs, but also creates an internal culture that fosters responsive and respectful interactions.

Here are just a few of the many benefits, it:

  • fosters stakeholder engagement and empowerment
  • ensures strategic initiatives, goals, and objectives to be culturally appropriate and inclusive of community needs
  • supports the recruitment and retention of a diverse and inclusive governing body and workforce
  • creates a safe and supportive environment that accepts and respects diversity

The how

Seek stakeholder feedback

Connect with your community! The best way to do that is to offer formal and informal ways for clients and community members to provide feedback about the work that you do. That’s why COA highlights the importance of stakeholder involvement in performance and quality improvement systems in its standards. As an organization, you get a sense of what’s working and what’s missing the mark. You can then tailor your services and outreach efforts to ensure that they are culturally appropriate. Most importantly, when you incorporate client and community feedback it makes those you serve active in organizational decision-making processes and promotes engagement and empowerment.

Conduct a community needs assessment

Conducting a community needs assessment is an effective way to identify strengths and resources in your community. It also highlights current gaps and service needs. Collaborating with community partners can enhance this assessment. You can also review other external needs assessments conducted by organizations with a community-wide focus. KIDS COUNT data center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, allows you to access local, state, and national level data and statistics on demographics and child and family well-being that can be incorporated into your assessment process.

Incorporate community demographics into your strategic planning process

Strategic initiatives should be responsive to changing community demographics and service needs. COA recommends that organization leadership review a demographic profile of their defined service population at least once every long-term planning cycle. However, it’s not enough to collect and review demographic data; it must inform an organization’s planning and operations. Promote cultural competence by establishing goals and objectives that are culturally appropriate for those you serve. Want to go a step further? Incorporate a cultural competency plan into your strategic planning process.

Foster a culturally responsive workforce

Promote cultural competence by having a diverse and inclusive workforce. A first step is ensuring that your human resources practices are culturally appropriate. Organizations should strategically recruit and employ personnel that reflect cultural characteristics of the service population. Is this a challenge for your organization? Create a plan that establishes goals for recruiting and employing individuals that represent your service population and community.

Another way you can commit to promoting cultural competence is by providing relevant education and training opportunities to personnel at all levels. Opportunities should not only focus on work with clients, but also address the internal workplace and interactions amongst other staff. Education and training should be tailored to the needs of your organization, but may include: language classes, interpreter training, mentoring programs, and diversity workshops. You can also conduct workforce assessments to inform ongoing personnel development opportunities to ensure that all staff is trained on culturally responsive policies, procedures, and practices. Once personnel have the necessary education and training, it’s time to integrate culturally responsive practices into everyday work with clients. As a provider, your goal should be to provide respectful, effective, and equitable care. This stems from adopting a service philosophy that is culturally responsive to those you serve, and culturally appropriate program-level policies and procedures.

Arguably one of the most important things that you can do as an organization is create safe and supportive environment where personnel can explore and gain an understanding of different cultures. You can do so by creating a cultural advisory committee to address workforce diversity issues or holding “cultural conversations” where staff can discuss diversity issues and learn from one another. Offering these types of forums reinforces a culture that is accepting and responsive to diversity.

Establish and maintain a diverse and inclusive board

One major responsibility of a nonprofit board is establishing and adopting organizational policy. Policies and procedures that support culturally responsive practice provide the framework for being a culturally competent organization. That is why having a board that reflects the demographics of the community it serves is so crucial. It’s no secret that board recruitment can be a challenge. If your organization is struggling to establish a board that is diverse and inclusive, establish a stakeholder advisory group that is representative of the community you serve and create a board recruitment plan that outlines strategies for getting everyone at the table. Need a little guidance? BoardSource is an excellent resource on board diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Are you feeling overwhelmed?

Don’t be. One of the most important things for organizations to keep in mind is that cultural competence is an evolving, active process; it’s not something that is attainable overnight. In fact, some researchers say there is a cultural competency continuum. The takeaway here is that every step you make towards becoming a culturally competent organization is a step in the right direction.

Want to learn more?

There are plenty of resources floating around the Internet that address cultural competence. Here are a few that you may find helpful:

National CLAS Standards

The National CLAS Standards are a set of guidelines that aim to reduce health care disparities and advance health equity. COA developed a crosswalk to demonstrate how COA standards align with the National CLAS Standards and support the provision of culturally and linguistically responsive services.

National Center for Cultural Competency (NCCC)

The National Center for Cultural Competency (NCCC) aims to promote health and mental health equity through the promotion of culturally and linguistically competent service delivery systems and offers a variety of resources and publications geared towards the promotion of cultural competence.

Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice

Are you a social worker? The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) developed standards and indicators for cultural competence in social work practice.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a host of information around cultural competency in the field of behavioral health. Check out this manual which focuses on helping providers and administrators understand the role of culture in the delivery of mental health and substance use services.

Okay, your turn!

What are some challenges your organization faced in this area and how have you attempted to overcome them? Can you share any tips, tools or resources that lead to your success? Please leave a comment below and help others learn from your experiences.


About COA

Founded in 1977, the Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit organization that accredits human and social service providers. Our mission is to partner with human and social service organizations to strengthen their ability to improve the lives of the people they serve.