As a program officer, I depend on data and feedback to develop effective funding strategies. The knowledge I gather from grantees, colleagues and community partners helps to inform the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington’s approach. Through this ongoing work, we have found that those closest to the issues are best positioned to bring about solutions. With this understanding, our Community Grants Committee has made a point to prioritize funding for culturally specific organizations.
What is a Culturally Specific Organization?
A culturally specific organization (or CSO) serves a particular cultural community and is founded, led by and staffed with people who are members of that community. These nonprofits and community-based organizations help people thrive by starting on a foundation of shared cultural identities, histories, languages and experiences. Often beginning as grassroots efforts, these organizations remain embedded in the fabric of their communities as they grow.
Having direct experience and a deep understanding of the strengths and opportunities within their community, culturally specific organizations are more likely to recognize emerging challenges and develop more effective programming and services, often in partnership with those they serve.
Culturally specific organizations are a response to the shortcomings of a “one size fits all” approach found in many mainstream and systems-based organizations. Many have been established in response to the lack of progress being made to reduce disparities across a range of systems and sectors, from education to housing to health outcomes.
But, when we talk about cultural specificity, it’s important to recognize that this approach does not exclude anyone. Rather, it recognizes that different groups face unique challenges and addresses those inequities through programs and services tailored to their community’s needs.
The Strengths of Culturally Specific Organizations
Why is culture so important? Well, it’s our way of life. Among other elements, it encompasses the language, beliefs, customs, institutions, art, ceremonies and dress shared by a group of people. These shared characteristics often form around a specific ethnicity, language, nationality or religion. Norms and traditions pass down from generation to generation and can even adapt to specific times or places.
Culture plays a huge part in how we see ourselves, our relation to others and our place in the world. Culturally specific organizations understand these nuances, which equips them with unique strengths when it comes to providing programs and services. For our team, six stand out. These assets make CSOs particularly effective at advancing equitable solutions.
1. Oriented Toward Inclusivity: Culturally specific organizations naturally create inclusive spaces, where people can shed the status of “outsider,” feel at home and find respite from the day-to-day stress of a society still rife with discrimination. Mainstream services struggle to create these spaces because they rely heavily on white perspectives and prefer standardized approaches.
2. Connection to Community: Created by and for the people they serve, culturally specific organizations have deep roots in the community. Staff also belong to the community, which helps the organization understand and address the needs and issues specific to their participants.
3. Advocacy Involvement: Many of the barriers their members face are systemic, so culturally specific organizations are more likely to engage in social action and advocacy work. They aim to improve unfair policies, practices and narratives that are the root causes of inequity and injustice.
4. Holistic Responses: Culturally specific organizations do not compartmentalize needs but respond holistically to the full range of individual and community needs. Instead of focusing on a single need or issue, they are more likely to provide comprehensive support that addresses the myriad needs in their community.
5. Relationship, Respect, and Recognition: Culturally specific organizations see relationships as integral to their effectiveness. Shared identity with clients fosters authentic and compassionate relationships that affirm cultural identities and provide a sense of belonging. This dynamic brings a “speed of trust” where clients trust the organization more quickly when they see that their worker shares their racial or cultural identity. This leads to more efficient and productive engagement between the organization and its clients.
6. Social and Economic Capital: Culturally specific organizations build social capital within the community by developing valuable resources, fostering local leadership, and nurturing local knowledge and expertise. This social capital strengthens the community’s capacity to tackle present and future issues more effectively. Additionally, these organizations contribute to their local economies by offering employment and contract opportunities.
Targeted Approaches Allow Everyone to Thrive
These strengths show how culturally specific organizations provide a targeted way to address our region’s greatest inequities. For example, we know poverty is not experienced equally across our region. Historic policies have excluded certain communities from the tools and opportunities needed to thrive. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
While mainstream organizations and services do critical work, they can’t be everything to everyone. Imagine a puzzle where each piece represents a unique community. While mainstream services make up big pieces in the puzzle, there are many tiny gaps that need specialized pieces. Culturally specific organizations shape their services to fill these gaps, completing the picture of a thriving community.
We are beginning to see that vision come to life through our grantmaking, and I hope these insights have helped you see how culturally specific organizations can unlock greater impact in your giving and our region. When we work together, we can give communities the resources and power to address their greatest needs and build a more equitable southwest Washington.
This blog is the first in a series created to provide greater transparency around our Strategic Grantmaking Programs. Each shares an insight gained from our focus on continuous feedback and learning. Collectively, this series showcases our emphasis on applying best practices from across the field of philanthropy that increase the impact of our community grants.