The Value of Difference: DEI and Cultural Intelligence, Explained

By GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group

Diversity, equity, and inclusion – commonly abbreviated DEI – is a fundamental concept for anyone doing business today, and particularly for those leading and working in nonprofits. Naturally, this extends to the nonprofit board: Proper governance simply cannot happen without an understanding of DEI and the practices involved. 

Failing to understand and include the full diversity of our people – those we serve, work with, and trust to make governance decisions – means missing out on the full value they bring to the table. When you invest in DEI, your dividends will include greater innovation and problem-solving abilities, increased opportunities, and a larger pool of resources. 

Below, find an explanation of the terms involved and tools for increasing CQ – your Cultural Intelligence.

Defining the terms

So what, exactly, is meant by diversity, inclusion, and equity?

Diversity can be defined as “difference.” Every characteristic an individual possesses can be counted under the rubric of diversity: race, ethnic group, religion, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education levels, nationality, ability, and more.

We all have multiple characteristics. Sometimes people “fit in” to a certain group because of a similarity like nationality. But we have to understand the complexities involved regarding the subgroups within those groups – as well as the subgroups within the subgroups.

Inclusion is what happens when people of varying identities feel valued, welcome to participate, and a sense of belonging – when they are invited to the table because their input is seen as important, as opposed to a kind of favor. In other words, inclusion is not just being given the chance to speak, but being listened to.

Equity, to put it simply, is a level playing field. In a video meant to illustrate the concept, a group of college students line up for a footrace. For every advantage they had grown up with – like a two-parent home, financial stability, private education, and freedom from hunger – participants get to start the race two steps ahead of the rest. Because these advantages make the winners a foregone conclusion, many of those left at the original starting line don’t even bother running the race.

The implication extends all the way back through US history. Because of their investment in an ideology designed to build wealth for a certain group of people, the founding fathers established the nation around the idea that “all men are created equal” except for people of color, who were property, and women, who were denied the right to vote. To put it simply, US institutions have advantaged some people and oppressed others purely on the basis of their identity – not because of anything they did.

The results of this systemic oppression continue to impact us in multiple dimensions – including the dynamics of an organization, office, or team, all of which are likely to be far more diverse than at any other point in American history. 

Again: Failing to understand people in all their diversity means missing out on the value they bring to the table – including an increase in innovation, problem-solving capacity, opportunities, and resources.

Tools for advancing inclusion and equity

Cultural Intelligence, also known as CQ, is the ability to recognize the differences among people, understand the dynamics those differences create, and successfully navigate them. If you want a board – or any team – to get the most out of each other, you must develop your own CQ and help board members develop their own.

To build CQ, follow this four-step model:

  1. Be motivated. Being aware of other people’s differences should be important to you not just because diversity is the norm, but because of the “bonus” that inclusion and equity provide everyone involved. Two heads are only better than one when their contents differ; with a variety of perspectives working on a single problem, the chance of a successful solution becomes much greater.
  2. Get knowledge. When we remain in a state of ignorance, fear takes over – and actions taken innocently can get us into trouble. Though it’s true you can never know everything about others, and you will make mistakes as you learn, you must become knowledgeable about the differences others possess. The key is to be genuine on your journey while seeking to discover how worldviews are built over time, through billions of factors (cultural inputs, historical precedents, and the way the brain filters information).
  3. Develop a strategy to implement knowledge and improve interactions with others. Based on what you’ve learned, you have to decide how you’re going to deal with the full range of constituencies: coworkers and board members, community and clients, investors, volunteers, and more. The goal is to move from ignorance to understanding, and from tolerance to acceptance to rejoicing. You can plot your CQ development strategy with an action plan template, including columns for tasks, activities, someone you’ll be responsible to, resources required, and measures or deliverables. Get advice from people who you see leading with a high degree of CQ.
  4. Evaluate and adjust. Once you’ve implemented your strategy, you have to reflect on your outcomes. If they aren’t the results you’re looking for, you have to consider what went wrong, and change your approach. Again, a good source for counsel is a leader who exhibits great CQ.

Instilling DEI organization-wide

The structural barriers to diversity, inclusion, and equity that might exist in your organization can be found in a multitude of areas, including people, principles, policies, practices, processes, programs, promotion, partnerships, and funding. If you want to eliminate the obstacles to diversity, inclusion, and equity in your nonprofit, your strategy must include a way to address those in power and get their commitment. Developing your CQ, sharing the lessons it’s taught you, and articulating the value of differences are all key to convincing others.

What strategies can help your nonprofit begin dismantling those structural barriers?

  1. Make DEI a value of the organization – particularly regarding race.
  2. Develop a formal policy on racial DEI.
  3. Develop a plan of action to increase racial DEI.
  4. Account for this plan in performance evaluation measures.
  5. Provide training and/or coaching on DEI.
  6. Rethink succession planning and coaching with DEI in mind.


In practical terms, these strategies could mean a number of things, like consciously seeking board talent from more-diverse sources; operating from the frame of reference of the people you serve; rethinking your research methodologies; harnessing ethnic media to reach more diverse audiences; and creating more partnerships with diverse groups.

Because the issues of inequity are deeply rooted and far-reaching, the work of incorporating diversity, inclusion, and equity is both broad and deep. That makes it a significant challenge, both on a personal and organizational level – but it’s also an invaluable opportunity to expand capacity, deepen relationships, strengthen relevance, and ensure the sustainability of your nonprofit’s work.

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