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Gain more allies, build better connections, and further your mission using cultural intelligence

We operate in a more culturally diverse world than ever. Is your nonprofit taking advantage of demographic shifts, using cultural considerations to gain a competitive edge? If you want to be the partner of choice, design programs that are relevant, craft compelling messages, and launch effective giving campaigns, then it is critical to possess a high level of cultural intelligence.

When healthy, happy relationships are in place, you are likely to receive more than mere compliance from your partners and supporters. Utilizing cultural intelligence is the way to develop those relationships, and help further your mission by:

1) Creating more opportunities: The right conversations will inspire others to be open and provide more information, leads, or donations.

2) Generating greater results: Inviting culturally diverse groups of people to the table to solve problems curates a more innovative environment, as well as a larger pool of ideas.

Another mistake is simply translating materials into a different language without considering how it applies to your audience.

The most common mistake nonprofits make when trying to increase cultural respect or understanding is hiring someone from a particular demographic to serve only as a bridge to their cultural community, rather than to serve as part of staff leadership. Another mistake is simply translating materials—messaging, program collateral, and other communications—into a different language without considering how it applies to your audience. That can create a cultural disconnect, often rendering the materials ineffective. Rather, we should be making marketing materials that reflect the values and beliefs of the audiences we are trying to attract. Personally, I am half black and, half Latino, so I understand first-hand the benefits of using the insights of a culturally diverse staff to help build programming, plan communications, and design events.

Consider Gwinnett Christian Terrace (GCT), whose mission is to enhance the lives of older adults through a caring, affordable senior-living community. Several years ago, they saw the need to take further steps to increase their cultural intelligence by hiring Eun Shim as GCT Cultural & Social Affairs Coordinator. She educates staff in Korean traditions, as a whole and on a more individual basis, and her work for residents goes beyond providing properly translated information: She helps blend activities, amenities, and the facility environment to connect with a growing minority population. Likewise, Environmental Services Manager Angela Benitez provides many of the same resources around GCT’s Latino community.  

Your number one resource is the people around you – each one is, practically, a walking encyclopedia. Getting them to open up requires operating from the heart and showing interest. 

Locating Shim and Benitez on-site physically, and using their insights to enhance programming, plan communications, and design events, GCT doesn’t just increase their capacity for relationship-building with these populations, they are better able to facilitate connections with everyone in their community, staff and residents, regardless of background. When everyone thinks of increasing diversity as a positive value-add, rather than a threatening change, it cultivates genuine appreciation for cultural differences among residents, and continuous opportunities for GCT staff to learn about – and from – their residents. Successfully using cultural intelligence has empowered GCT to cultivate a strong community of inclusion.

So what are the best resources for gaining cultural intelligence? Your number one resource is the people around you – each one is, practically, a walking encyclopedia. Getting them to open up, and share the wealth of information they possess, requires operating from the heart and showing interest. Other resource opportunities can be found among your partners – other nonprofits, for-profit supporters, and stakeholder groups – and by networking with like-minded organizations who serve multi-cultural populations. Regardless of which path you choose, it’s critical that your research goes beyond a superficial knowledge search to uncover the whys, hows, and other details underpinning different cultures. 

With an understanding of where to look for cultural intelligence and why it’s important, you’ll want to develop a strategy for exercising and developing it. Here are six tips I suggest you incorporate.

6 tips for developing and exercising cultural intelligence

1. Leave your frame of reference at the door. If we don’t put our paradigms on the shelf we may come off as judgmental, defensive, or argumentative. Next time you encounter a point of difference with someone, try looking at things through their eyes. 

2. Acknowledge the diversity within a cultural group. While people may possess a common cultural denominator, be sensitive to everything that makes an individual who they are. People commonly lumped into one cultural group can in face possess a variety of different socioeconomic statuses, religions, upbringings, and perspectives. For example, not all Latinos like spicy foods— trust me, I’m one of them. Because we’re not a homogenous population, using stereotypes like this in your messaging can actually insult your audience.

3. Rethink research methodologies for gaining cultural intelligence. For example, don’t limit your cultural research to books written by someone from outside the culture in question. You can look to wonderful cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead, but you must also go out and genuinely engage with people. This will not only help you understand other cultures on a personal level, but will prove a lot more memorable than a text full of facts and figures.

4. Utilize nontraditional media and social platforms to reach target audiences. In many cases, your local newspaper or radio station might not be the best way to engage. Try looking at informal media posts from that community, and get the attention of frequent posters to help spread your message authentically.

5. Make sure your creative messaging resonates with your target audience. Make sure you are speaking on a level that your audience understands, that will make them chuckle, or otherwise engage their interest. By taking the time to get to know your target audience and creating relevant messaging, the people you are trying to attract are going to be more likely to trust you.

6. Don’t do it on your own. You can partner with collaborators, like churches and families, within the cultural group you are targeting. This can also include getting to know and working with champions and influencers in the community.

Sir José Bright is vice president and senior consultant with GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group.

Jenna Ovett is communications coordinator for GCN.

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