The Critical Role of Cultural Responsiveness in Today’s Nonprofits

While culturally responsive leadership has usually been centered in education, its practices have value to the nonprofit sector as well.

The Critical Role of Cultural Responsiveness in Today’s Nonprofits
15 mins read

A culturally responsive workplace is crucial in bringing out the best in your team.

Today, our organizations are the most diverse they’ve ever been, with individuals from five generations co-existing in the workplace. In a world fueled by the immediacy of social media and constant news updates, we are continuing to diversify. Nonprofits are encountering potential workers who are linguistically, ideologically, and culturally different. And these new workers often do not aspire to assimilate to what has always been in terms of workplace culture and expectations.

As both educator and nonprofit leader, I have experienced the value and need to engage in culturally responsive practices. As I grow older in years and in my field, it’s imperative that I know, understand, and challenge myself to lead in a mindful way.

Some might assert that we, as a society, are just too sensitive — that we can’t and shouldn’t try to appease and include everyone. I beg to differ.

Now as then, we need cultural responsiveness.

In the late 1990s, I was introduced to scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings, who coined the concept of culturally responsive teaching. At the time, I was an anti-bias educator, working with new teachers who were from suburban areas going to teach in urban and rural settings. Creating connections for students to the material and in considerations of their assets, the new educators were in need of a fresh lens and approach. Here, I found culturally responsive teaching to bridge the gap between the teachers and their students.

But this gap exists in our workplaces as well, separating employees from one another (and from leadership). That is, our workplaces also need a fresher approach. While culturally responsive leadership historically has been centered in education, its practices are invaluable to the nonprofit sector as well.

To be clear, establishing a culturally responsive workplace is a crucial step in bringing out the best in your team. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are not just words organizations repeat; they are the foundations of who we are, and they are the steps we must continue to take.1 That is, organizations must work to foster DEIB in both external and internal practices for better productivity, effectiveness, and quality.

What is culturally responsive leadership (CRL)?

The CRL framework refers to a set of philosophies, practices, and policies that are adaptable and receptive to change. Culturally responsive leadership (CRL) is a framework that encompasses philosophies, practices, and policies that are adaptable and responsive to cultural diversity.

Culturally responsive leadership understands the cultural heritage and nuances of clients, employees, and communities. Culturally responsive leaders strive to have a broader, global perspective. These leaders are aware of their own values, commitments, beliefs, and prejudices as well as the way they utilize their power and influence. In this awareness, they are not afraid to question themselves.

Such leadership requires personal bravery: in the pursuit of learning, one must risk being a naïve offender, accepting that you are not an expert though you might be in a position of power. Culturally responsive leaders are committed to continuous learning and addressing any service delivery gaps or inequities. Such constant learning may — and probably even should — reveal systems of inequity and oppression; as such, leaders need to prepare to challenge such systems, which might also include a critique of themselves. Culturally responsive leaders, then, recognize the importance of empathy and cultural humility, understanding that leadership is a process (not an end) through which we continue to learn how to lead.

When I discuss the importance of CRL, I often hear the same responses: “This is the way we’ve always approached the work.” Or: “Our practices reflect how we do business and our team needs to get on board.” In response to these concerns, I want to be clear: practicing culturally responsive leadership doesn’t mean we lose but rather enhance our business practices. Our organizations must grow with the times. In the pursuit of equity and inclusion, we gain new perspectives — which means we sometimes (hopefully) lose outdated paradigms and practices.

By becoming more culturally responsive leaders, nonprofit organizations have the opportunity to be great agents of change in business practices. As we all well know, this sector often attracts workers who want to make a difference in society or in the world, and this invites more mindful awareness of and perspectives concerning the communities they serve.

So, what does culturally responsiveness look like in practice?

Every generation claims there is more diversity in the workplace than before — and each of them are correct. In the nonprofit sector especially, more and more workers are demanding freedom to be fully authentic, to show up as their full selves rather than having to hide parts of themselves in their work settings.

To address these wants and needs, many organizations are using affinity groups or employee resource groups as a way to become more culturally responsive. This is a wonderful recognition that younger generations are living out loud more so than any other generation has had the liberty to do so.

But affinity groups are not the only CRL strategy. In fact, CRL practices reach wide and far, ranging in terms of relative effort as well. Let me give you a few examples. Low-effort activities might include creating or updating email signature lines to include pronouns as an organization-wide practice. On the other hand, a moderate-effort activity could include writing a branding manual that includes how your staff and board talk about clients, identifying terms to avoid – terms like “at risk,” “poverty-stricken,” or “living in poverty.” Lastly, high-effort activities could include making single use office bathrooms gender neutral as well as re-evaluating pay scales to reflect equity pay for similar jobs. The list can go on (and I’d encourage you to share your own CRL practices, and denote their relative effort level, below)!

How do we become culturally responsive leaders?

At the root, culturally responsive leaders understand that culture is more than color and race; culture also encompasses a group’s collective ways of thinking, believing, and knowing. This includes shared experiences, consciousness, skills, values, forms of expression, social belongings, and behaviors as well as the organizational culture’s way of being.

This kind of leadership calls for shared decision-making2 as well as the sharing of perspectives. Such conversations allow both formal and informal leaders to help make decisions that align with stakeholder needs and expectations, especially where the implementation of programs or services are concerned. Most importantly, perhaps, being culturally responsive is not a top-down leadership approach. That is, organizations whose leaders embrace culturally responsive change efforts acknowledge the role of lower-power actors in assessing stakeholder needs. And indeed, this very practice can change how successful nonprofit organizations are in serving their clientele.

For example, one of my favorite practices involves creating a rotational facilitator for every staff meeting. That person (or team) has the opportunity to organize the meeting in any way they would like, often in ways that highlight their individual and gifts. Basically, this meeting leader is responsible for supporting the team in getting the information necessary to enhance and support the organization’s work. I have found this practice to be particularly successful in uplifting multiple voices, centering staff needs, and allowing for multiple perspectives to surface.

Another of my favorite practices involves allowing staff to co-develop community guidelines. These are especially effective in terms of creating staff-sourced measures for collaboration and conflict resolution, as the definitions for both of these can vary widely — as can preferred practices. These processes also encourage the natural evolution of leadership while creating opportunities to subvert typical leadership hierarchies by placing executive leadership in learning positions.

You must be willing to both challenge…

Culturally responsive leaders must question their organization, its culture, practices, and processes. That is, they must assess organizational culture before implementing new business strategies to ensure the alignment of current or proposed business strategies. As organizational leaders, they must ask themselves, “How does this strategy meet the needs of who receives our services and who delivers them?”

But these leaders do not simply ask these questions of themselves. That is, culturally responsive leaders must be willing to start these conversations around such organizational topics with coaches, mentors, and their peers. They also must be willing to bring these conversations to the people, involving their teams in similar conversations and modeling the willingness to learn from each other. After all, reading books on these issues is important but actively talking about these issues can be incredibly powerful in terms of paradigm shifting.3

In these conversations, it is important to remember that everyone has mental models of how things “should” work or be. However, being able to leverage five generations in the workforce — each with their own unique gifts and genius — provides organizations an opportunity to shine in how we deliver and serve.

….and be challenged.

At the same time, culturally responsive leaders must also be willing to assess their own leadership. Culturally responsive leaders recognize that it’s important to be aware of biases and how these biases can impact behavior towards other people (especially those on their team). As we’re all probably aware, these biases can be subtle and unconscious, but they can still send unintended (and anti-productive) messages.

Of course, we are often totally unaware of our biases — that’s what we call (and why we call it) unconscious bias. You might see this bias rear its ugly head in your triggers, especially in what triggers your frustration in your staff. This can look manifest in your annoyance in a staff member’s relationship with time or how they pronounce a word (or accents in general), process information, receive/give feedback, and/or respond to conflict. Your frustrations may stem from unconscious biases about a person’s racial, cultural, ethnic identity rather than their actions. That is, your triggers have more to do with you than they do with them.

So what do we do about biases we’re unaware of? Well, one of my favorite tools to begin the internal dialogue about unconscious bias(es) is Elena Aguilar’s Reflecting on My Own Bias activity. This tool asks the questions that afford a non-judgmental look at one’s own behaviors and beliefs. This information could be startling for some, but also be an invitation to learn more about one’s self. Again, your biases (and frustration therein) are really about you, not the other person.

Ultimately, assessing our own biases and fostering diversity in the workplace supports better leadership by creating a more positive and productive work environment where people feel they belong and are committed to something bigger. In the nonprofit workplace especially, many of the younger staff are looking for connection and alignment to their own lives, values, and way of being. On the other hand, more seasoned generations can be and are inspired and motivated by thinking about their legacy to their own communities, families, and important causes. The goal is to put such different staff communities in conversation with each other, as dialogue is what helps to make people feel as though they belong. And the first step to creating this belonging is by assessing your own biases to ensure that people feel safe enough to share.

Cultural responsiveness is not the destination but the journey.

Really, culturally responsive leadership is not a style; it’s who we become in the process of inclusion. It is a conscious way — of showing up, of being in the world, of teaching and learning, of creating space — for people to thrive, excel, and represent while being seen, heard, and valued. It’s both what we (continuously) do and who we are.

For decades, our workplaces have often centered whiteness and gendered practices. Many of those traditions have been challenged at the bare minimum, perhaps diminished, and yet, they still exist. To say that the whole sector is social justice minded would be an unfair characterization of the nonprofit world.

However, I have always experienced nonprofits as creative thinkers who dwell outside of the box, crafting solutions with care in the hopes of doing good in the world. And I hang my hope on personal experience that the nonprofit sector has the ability to become the ones to watch, as the facilitators of culturally responsive workplace practices. Like most journeys, this is one best taken together.


  1. For more on moving beyond performance, check out this article: Making DEI Actionable. ↩︎
  2. For more on what collective leadership can look like, check out this article: Unlocking Potential. ↩︎
  3. If you’re not already familiar, Kay Pranis’ work on restorative practices provides content on improving communication, including affective statements and active listening. ↩︎

About the Author

Author photo: Danielle Nava-Mijares
Board Member at 

In 2017, Danielle Nava-Mijares retired from a 25-year career in human relations/social justice nonprofit work. She started her consulting coaching practice in commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and a plan to support transformation in the lives of people. She is a consultant and coach to several nonprofits and school districts.

She supports organizations in developing more inclusive and equitable workplaces where people can show up authentically and showcase their genius and talents. Her strategies, approaches, and designs have earned her long-time client loyalty and recognition at the local and state levels. Danielle’s areas of expertise include restorative justice and non-verbal communication.

Danielle is a devoted daughter, mama, wife, friend, and community volunteer. She is a seeker of justice, protector of human rights, hoarder of books, and lover of coffee. She lives in Orange County, CA in an 80-year-old house with her husband and son. She is a proud board member of Fullerton Museum Center who is committed to increasing community accessibility.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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