Philanthropy That Fits: The Intersection Between Culture and Impact

Culture is a slippery concept, but it seems to be an increasingly important one. From the growth of culturally sensitive education for medical professionals in the US to the UN’s recent debate on the role of culture in future development agendas, culture is of undeniable relevance in our increasingly interconnected world. But while the importance of culture has been widely discussed, it’s often framed in a way that implies that culture is something to be managed or adapted to—a liability, rather than an opportunity to create impact. We think there’s another way to think about it: what if culture could be a tool in and of itself, rather than something standing between an intervention and its impact?

In our series “Philanthropy That Fits,” we dive in to the the intersection between culture and impact: can philanthropy go beyond being culturally sensitive and become culturally based, maximizing opportunities for impact? Could that really stack up as a “high-impact” approach? Can community traditions become the agents of change?

 What does a “culturally informed” program look like?

While the importance of culture is widely recognized, the real-life implications for programs and services have varied widely. In the last 10 years, there has been increasing interest in tailoring “standard” or “mainstream” programs to fit the needs of specific racial, ethnic, religious or social groups; the assumption is that programs won’t work (or won’t work as well) if culture is ignored.

This recognition has no doubt helped to bring communities and services into closer alignment. However, the implication can be that culture is something that must be overcome or altered to create positive change. In addition, in the worst case scenario, focusing too much on culture can obscure underlying inequalities; when culture alone is cited as the cause of health and social disparities, structural issues like poverty or education can be overlooked. On the flip side, programs that don’t take culture into account can be less effective and can even incite backlash from the communities they seek to serve. Between those two extremes, however, there are a range of ways for programs to get culture right.

 Spectrum of culturally informed interventions

Through our scan, we found that culturally informed programs fall along a spectrum; on one end, some programs are doing their best to simply recognize that culture matters, providing sensitivity training or similar approaches. On the other end, there are programs that are built “from the culture up”, harnessing cultural forces as a tool for impact. These culturally based models (as opposed to training-based models) are often community centered, with strong local partnerships.

 There is no single “right” approach, and engaging with culture at any point along the spectrum can facilitate social impact. However, it is important to recognize that cultural sensitivity is just the beginning. Thinking of culture as part of a “high-impact” strategy is a reminder that culture isn’t just something to be dealt with or even something to be embraced—it’s also something that can be utilized strategically to maximize social impact. Beliefs, relationships and cultural traditions can be tools for promoting positive behaviors from within a community, rather than outside of it.

 As we continue our Philanthropy That Fits series, we’ll be highlighting organizations that are taking these concepts and making them work on the ground. Next up, we’ll be sharing our Q&A with Grandmother Project founder Judi Aubel, who spoke with us about how her organization creates “change through culture” by working with community elders to promote healthy behaviors for women and girls.