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The Difference that Makes a Difference

Our Experience with Developing Intercultural Competency

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Giving Forum. It is adapted and posted here with permission from the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

While discussing trends in racial disparities in education and employ­ment in Minnesota, board and staff members alike at the McKnight Foundation asked what more they could do to close such vexing disparities. While the private family foundation had a long legacy of championing and demonstrating equity in its grantmaking and commu­nity partnerships, the board realized it still had much more to do to fully understand the complex nuances of diversity, equity and inclusion. In other words, they didn’t know what they still needed to know.

Kate Wolford, the McKnight Foundation’s president, understood the significance of the board’s request. “Given the dramatic demo­graphic changes in our communities, the deep and persistent data around structural racism, and feedback from community partners, we saw how this quest could enhance the impact of our grantmak­ing,” she says.

Wolford worked closely with Bernadette Christiansen, vice presi­dent of operations, to consider next steps. Christiansen researched how other foundations were incorporating diversity, equity, and inclu­sion into their work in meaningful ways. McKnight chose a develop­mental approach and focused on intercultural competency as a platform on which to build its diversity, equity, and inclusion framework.

McKnight decided to enlist the help of MCF, which had just begun offering consulting services to its members. McKnight engaged MCF to create and deliver a series of group and individual oppor­tunities to understand and develop intercultural competency. MCF staff paired up with One Ummah Consulting, a local consulting group that specializes in intercultural development to lead the work with McKnight board and staff. Alfonso Wenker of MCF (now at Team Dynamics) and Nehwr Abdul-Wahid of One Ummah Consulting co-facilitated the start of a lifelong journey for the board and staff of McKnight.

In the first session, the facilitators introduced the group to the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), an instrument for under­standing cultural competence and a tool used to measure people’s capacity to recognize and navigate cultural differences with greater levels of complexity. This developmental approach focuses in part on developing an understanding of the difference between what’s called objective and subjective culture.

“Objective culture is art, language, food,” Wenker says. “Subjec­tive culture is made up of all the unseen ways in which we are how we are, like whether or not you make eye contact with someone when you speak to them.” Subjective culture is where the meanings behind eye contact lives.

Differences in objective culture are easy to spot. Subjective culture is harder to see. That’s where the IDI comes in. McKnight board and staff members took the 50-question instrument online. Each board and staff member received their individual assessment, and a group profile reflecting the organization as a whole was also generated once all assessments were completed.

Facing the Difficult Truth

McKnight’s profile reflected a Minimization orientation, and according to IDI trainers, 67% of people who take the IDI use a Minimization mindset – which is marked by an understanding of cultural difference while simultaneously overly relying on the assumed commonalities between groups. People with this profile may see difference in the ab­stract or on the surface, but may discount (minimize) how significantly cultural differences influence behaviors, policies, and practices.

“Minimization means that I’m listening to difference,” adds Wenker. “But I’m hearing sameness. I beckon with one hand and I say, ‘Come be different.’ But with the other hand I give the stiff arm. Organization­ally we say we want different perspectives, but then when we bring in people from diverse backgrounds, we onboard them for sameness.”

Learning that their organizational profile was in minimization was a call to action for many McKnight staff members. “This is a group of people who are high performers. To learn that our group profile was in minimization – just like 67% of people – showed that in the area of intercultural competency, we had a lot of room for improvement,” said Christiansen. “There was an immediate desire for a commitment from me that the group would re-take the assessment in 18 months. People wanted to see growth and development.”

Nehrwr Abdul-Wahid leads McKnight Foundation staff on an intercultural bridging strategies session.

The IDI describes current capacity while also indicating what kind of learning is required to build greater capacity. McKnight staff spent 18 months working to develop those competencies, and their facilitators led the organization through a series of seven intensive all-staff workshops. In addition, McKnight made coaching available for individuals and teams.

Abdul-Wahid explains that the challenge with Minimization is that one of its key components is both a strength and a source of interfer­ence. “We need commonality to recognize each other’s humanity,” he says. “Recognizing similarities between cultures and having shared expectations is a strength. But Minimization leads to an over-de­pendence on commonality. Minimization wants an environment of comfort. Minimization is conflict averse. There’s an inability to have honest, authentic discussions.”

Once the group understood the relative strengths and weaknesses of the orientations on the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC, the theory upon which the IDI is based), it was time to more fully explore the organization’s hidden assumptions. Through exercises that pushed the group to think about the invisible aspects of culture, McKnight started to see the hidden rules of the dominant culture in our country and in its own offices. McKnight began to see how various HR policies may unintentionally privilege some styles and approaches while marginalizing others. This made the organization more conscious of its norms and helped people see that saying “that’s just the way we do things around here” was the sound of minimizing differences.

“I’m a direct communicator,” Christiansen says. “And it’s served me very well in my career. But now I can see that my communication style is a personal and cultural preference.” Christiansen realizes that being culturally competent means being more open to other commu­nication styles, and actively working toward being more accepting and accommodating.

Implementing Change for Real Results

Karyn Sciortino Johnson discusses emerging tension points during an IDI workshop.

Soon, McKnight was ready to start putting what they learned into practice. The next step was to form what’s called Action Learning Teams, small groups tasked with bringing organizational change using the new intercultural competency mindset. Nearly half of all Foun­dation employees participated in an Action Learning Team. After staff identified key areas where they recommended seeing changes to pol­icies and procedures, McKnight settled on three focus areas for the Action Learning Teams: deeper learning, grantmaking, and employee leave policies on bereavement and holidays. Each team was charged with collecting feedback from their colleagues, developing a plan and making specific recommendations.

“The simplest one was Human Resources,” Christiansen says. “One of the outcomes was the decision to change from having 11 assigned holidays to having 12 non-assigned holidays that people choose for themselves and then observe.” Even a seemingly simple change like this wasn’t so simple. “The switch has ramifications for facilities, for reception, for operations, and for the people in HR,” she says. In the end, the group was able to implement the change.

In the summer of 2017, the group held an all-staff retreat that marked a capstone to all these months of learning and testing new ideas. The facilitators revealed the results of a recent reassessment the staff had taken. Everyone wondered if the time, money and effort that McKnight employees invested over the 18 months resulted in increased effectiveness in Intercultural Development. IDI trainers say the shift from Minimization to Acceptance, the next orientation on the developmental continuum, is one of the most difficult; most organiza­tions do not shift immediately. When it was revealed that McKnight’s intercultural development had indeed shifted to Acceptance, the room broke into applause and there was a collective “Whoop!” at the news of the developmental shift.

Nate Wade discusses structure and accountability during an IDI staff retreat.

At the staff retreat, Wolford made it clear that the Foundation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion didn’t end with the IDI staff trainings. “We see it as mission-critical to have our staff be better equipped to engage across differences, and the IDI was one tool to help us increase organizational capacity and effectiveness,” she says. “The next step is continuing this development while increasing our area of focus to advance diversity, equity and inclusion through our policies, practices and behaviors. We have identified some next steps including deeper learning on implicit bias and structural racism to inform our strategy and approach. Using what we have learned through this initial phase of work we will consider how we approach our external role as a funder, an employer, economic entity, institution­al investor, convenor and thought leader.”

Institution-Wide Changes for the Better

McKnight has implemented a number of changes as a direct result of the IDI work. A program administrator in the International team is now devoting 40 percent of her time to supporting the DEI work. A DEI advisory committee – consisting of Wolford, Christiansen, and Kara Carlisle, the vice president of programs, along with the three staff leads of the original learning teams – has formed to guide staff-related work on DEI. In January of this year, McKnight released a public statement of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. The Grantmaking Action Learning Team developed a plan to collect benchmark demographic data of the board and staff of grantees who apply for McKnight funding.

Wolford has asked everyone – regardless of position or department – to budget 5 percent of their time to intentionally focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. This can mean anything from continued individu­al coaching to learning from grantees who are leaders in equity work. Or it can mean actively pursuing different grantmaking outcomes, such as the Art team’s ongoing work as part of the Racial Equity Funders Collaborative, or the Mississippi River team’s exploration of diverse community partners.

And it’s not just the program teams who are strategizing how to integrate DEI into their work. The finance, communications and operations teams have also sought ways to incorporate DEI into their practices. The reception and facilities team brainstormed ways to make McKnight’s meeting space even more welcoming and inclusive. The communications team examined how to use more inclusive imag­ery and language and took steps to make its website more accessible to users with different abilities. At one manager’s meeting, the IT director asked, “Do we have any guidance on how to talk to business partners about diversity? Because I’d like to speak to a partner organi­zation that has no diversity on their staff.”

“We recognize this is a journey, and we won’t always get it right,” says Wolford. “We’ve had uncomfortable conversations and moments of consternation. We’ll always be impatient to see results faster. Even so, we are encouraged by the shared commitment among board and staff alike to more fully embody the values and vision we seek with and for our community.”


For more information about MCF services in this area, contact Camille Cyprian, MCF’s Director of Program Strate­gy and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at 612-335-3556.

Dennis Cass is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones and the online journal Slate. 

Topic: Diversity Equity & Inclusion

April 2018