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4 Tips for Culturally Responsive Programming

Thana-Ashley Charles, Consultant

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve always had an inherent appreciation for diversity – yet my training and work in the evaluation space has fostered even greater realization that diversity is a critical component to both program design and evaluation.

In my work, I’ve had to assess how people are experiencing programs and whether those experiences match what was intended. Naturally, I’ve been exposed to and come to understand realities and points of view different than my own. I see this call for cultural responsiveness as being relevant to not only evaluators, but program staff as well – in an effort to mend any disconnect between a program and its intended clients. In that spirit I share these thoughts with you.

What is Cultural Responsiveness?

Think of cultural responsiveness as a tool to ensure the inclusion of various points of views and experiences. It often requires that those in a position of power take stock of their role in society and the advantages that may come with it. It also encourages the learning and understanding of other groups to foster respect, trust, and inclusion of that understanding in every step of decision-making. This includes the recognition of demographic, sociopolitical, and other contextual characteristics. For a program officer or director, this might look something like embracing the various viewpoints of the clients you serve and incorporating them into your design of programs and services (McBride 2011, Hood et. al, 2015).

What Does Cultural Responsiveness Look Like For Program Officers and Managers?

Cultural responsiveness can be manifested through various aspects of a program. Here are four simple strategies that program staff might try, regardless of the issue area they are working in:

1. Engage Community Stakeholders

Stakeholders could be members of the community who would be beneficiaries, community leaders, or others who are familiar working with the community and their needs. By engaging stakeholders in the design and implementation of your programming, the program is able to align its goals with what community members need. Engaging stakeholders throughout the process of program design and implementation also helps to foster a stronger relationship with the community. This ultimately allows for the program staff to better understand the realities of the intended beneficiaries and craft a program that will best fit their lives.

Real-World Example:

A program is trying to improve the health behaviors of members of a low-income community. The program might conduct focus groups or meetings with those members to identify the barriers they face regarding routine screenings and check-ups. They might learn that transportation and mistrust are key barriers. Utilizing that information, the program may choose to offer mobile services for clients, or partner with key community organizations, such as religious spaces, where there is already strong community trust.

2. Use Inclusive Language In Communication With And About Clients

The language used to define the program’s goals as well as materials used to promote its services to the community members should be as inclusive as possible. The program should be using languages that are spoken by members in the community (both technically and colloquially). When needed, interpretation services should be considered. Program staff should also ensure that materials intended for beneficiaries are friendly for all levels of literacy. By using more inclusive language in communication, the program is more inviting to community members and reflects an effort being made to acknowledge their differences.

Real-World Example:

A program markets itself to the community as: “A comprehensive one-stop shop where you can get health information, check-ups, and screening for chronic diseases;” but this language doesn’t necessarily clarify what the services are. Does everyone in the community know what chronic diseases are? Does everyone understand what a screening process entails or that screenings do not necessarily diagnose illness? These are details to consider and to be made clear in any messaging about the program. By listing some of the target chronic illnesses, and/or including icons and images wherever possible, an informational pamphlet or ad is more inclusive. Additionally, explaining the details of the program’s services in simple language can make it easier for the target clients to understand and identify if they need those services.

3. Be Willing To Adapt Elements Of The Program Design

Organizations often want to be evidence-based in their programming, since this approach increases the chances of success and best use of resources. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is no uniform way to interact with a community. In implementing programming, organizations ought to be willing to adapt their design and tools so that they work for the community they are serving. There may be specific circumstances that apply to the community not previously considered in the evidence-based design. In order to be responsive to that, programs must be willing to show some flexibility in design and not ignore specific needs for the sake of maintaining program fidelity. Remember that the ultimate goal is to improve the lives of the beneficiaries and at times willingness to make adjustments will better enable the program to do that.

Real-World Example:

A program is designed based on literature stating that more community members completed screenings when providers became more accessible in the community. As a result, the program hosts a weekly clinic at a local site where medical professionals volunteer their services. However, the reality for many community members is that they cannot afford to take off from work or cover childcare during the clinic’s hours. By adapting the program’s design to offer non-typical weekend and evening clinic hours, or even offering a childcare room at the site, the rates of people coming in for screenings and learning more about their health will likely improve.

4. Reflect Continuously

It is important to think of cultural responsiveness as a continual process. Just because a program is culturally responsive at present, does not mean that it will not eventually have to shift in order to maintain that responsiveness as clients’ realities and needs may change over time.

Real-World Example:

In addition to assessing whether a program is culturally responsive, an organization conducts routine internal assessments to see which community members the program is and is not working for. They use this information to find commonalities among those groups and identify further areas of improvement to make the program even more inclusive of all community members.

Given the current political climate and the increasing uncertainty of social welfare, society will further depend on organizations that work to create social good. There will be an increased need for effective programming that can alleviate some of the social problems affecting many disadvantaged and underserved communities. Now more than ever we should be making every effort to be more culturally responsive in our work and lives. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by increasing our ability to listen, understand, and be aware of our differences in order to create better solutions to societal problems.


McBride, D.F. (2011). Sociocultural theory: Providing more structure to culturally responsive evaluation. In S.Mathison (Ed.), Really new directions in evaluation: Young evaluators’ perspectives. New Directions for Evaluation, 131, 7-13. Retrieved 11 December, 2016 from

Hood, S., Hopson, R., and Karen Kirkhart (2015). Culturally Responsive Evaluation: Theory, Practice and Future Implications. In Newcomer, K.E., Hatry, H.P., & Wholey, J.S. (2015). Handbook of practical program evaluation. John Wiley & Sons.

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