The Difference Between Cultural Competence and Diversity

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by Tarsha Whitaker Calloway

Most would argue that cultural competence is just another way of focusing on diversity and inclusion. Oftentimes, people will make the mistake of confusing cultural diversity and cultural competency. Cultural diversity is the existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups in an organization, but does not equate to competency in serving those groups. However, cultural competency is when organizations have a set of principles, beliefs and attitudes about cultural differences and experiences, and apply those principles, beliefs and attitudes to operations as policy.

In order for nonprofit organizations to address the current discontent of today’s environment and be responsive to the needs of a changing population, nonprofits should focus on addressing cultural incapacity, cultural blindness and gaps in multicultural representation in organizational leadership and program design. In essence, create a clear understanding of cultural competence in your organization.

In recent months, many nonprofits have been working to establish and share ways to contribute to the cultural competence conversation. Some actions have included creating equity within their workplace, identifying and dismantling white-dominant values and amplifying the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). Why should this matter to nonprofits? If your nonprofit services a diverse community, then cultural competence has a direct impact on the success of your programs and service delivery. A lack of cultural competence marginalizes people, creating the loss of potential resources to those communities that need it most, and in some cases, creates tangible harm to individuals and certain

Cultural destructiveness has resulted in dangerous studies like the “U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee,” which intentionally and systematically misled Black men consenting to be research subjects where they were observed with untreated syphilis rather than provided treatments to improve the disease.

Even though a treatment for syphilis was identified in 1945, the study continued until 1972 when journalists condemned the research as explicitly racist and culturally destructive. Meanwhile in 2020, the denial of COVID-19 testing early on for certain groups of people can be described as cultural incapacity. This lack of testing often resulted in delayed care, increased spread of the virus within the BIPOC community and worse health outcomes. Outside of the health care setting, similar examples can be seen in the way police issue citations at a higher rate to BIPOC than white people for the same offenses.

With this framework in mind, alongside our current circumstances, the urgency for incorporating cultural competence into all aspects of our society becomes a literal life and death issue that many organizations have to address throughout their work, so how can you start to create a culturally competent environment in your nonprofit? There are three fundamental steps nonprofits can consider:

  1. A culturally competent organization integrates knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, practices and attitudes to increase the quality of services provided and ultimately yield better outcomes by reducing disparities.
  2. Organizations cannot be culturally competent without employing culturally competent individuals, and individuals cannot thrive in their journey toward becoming culturally competent without an organization that fosters continued self-assessment, cultural learning and growth.
  3. Principles of cultural competence include valuing diversity, having the capacity for self-assessment, being conscious of the inherent dynamics when different cultures interact, institutionalizing cultural knowledge and developing adaptations to service delivery that reflect an understanding of cultural diversity and new cultural knowledge.

According to the Mission Box, a lack of cultural competence can lead to ineffective programs, loss of funding and conflicts among staff members. The culturally competent nonprofit is aware and deliberate in its inclusiveness in hiring, training, day-to-day operations, program outreach, design and delivery, and regularly assesses its responsiveness to the cultural needs of its employees, the people and communities it serves.

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