Multicultural development in human services agencies: challenges and solutions.
Abstract: Comprehensive multicultural organizational development (MCOD) is increasingly necessary in human services agencies. This article presents results from an exploratory study that identified challenges and solutions to MCOD, against the backdrop of daily realities of agency life. The author conducted interviews with 20 consultants and 20 practitioners experienced in MCOD. Qualitative analysis revealed four challenges--socioeconomic environment, organizational dynamics, conceptualization of the change effort, and consultant competence; and four solutions--collaborative environmental relations, leadership development, assessment and planning, and consultant selection. Results suggest the complexities of MCOD and ways that human services agencies can sustain such efforts.

Key words: diversity; human services agencies; multicultural development; organizational change
Author: Hyde, Cheryl A.
Pub Date: 01/01/2004
Publication: Name: Social Work Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 0037-8046
Issue: Date: Jan, 2004 Source Volume: 49 Source Issue: 1
Accession Number: 113415768
Full Text: In recent years it has become increasingly evident that human services agencies must become more multicultural to appropriately serve diverse and disenfranchised people. This need is apparent given the increases in populations of color, people who are elderly, and people with disabilities; the widening income gap; and the dismantling of the public welfare sector (Bocage, Homonoff, & Riley, 1995; Ferguson, 1996; Gutierrez & Nagda, 1996; Hasenfeld, 1996). Human services managers also must contend with greater gender, race, and age diversity in the service workforce (Asamoah, 1995; Brody, 1993; Iglehart, 2000; Shin & McClomb, 1998). Under the auspices of multicultural development, activities have been undertaken in response to these trends--awareness training, hiring and retention plans, and improved outreach and service delivery systems (Ferguson; Fong & Gibbs, 1995; Hyde, 1998; Iglehart; Iglehart & Becerra, 1995). Yet, comprehensive multicultural development often remains elusive.

The purpose of this study was to examine multicultural organizational development in human services agencies to understand some of the barriers to successful change. Through interviews with practitioners and consultants, and against the backdrop of the daily realities of agency life, challenges to multicultural development are identified and solutions are proposed.

Multicultural Organizational Development and Agency Transformation

Multicultural organizational development (MCOD) is a long-term, complex organizational change process that "does not simply accept or celebrate differences, but aims at a reduction in the patterns of racism and sexism [and other oppressions] that prevail in most U.S. institutions and organizations" through a fundamental transformation of an organization's culture (Chesler, 1994, p. 14; Gutierrez & Nagda, 1996; Jackson & Holvino, 1988). MCOD is rooted in the field of organizational development (OD); it differs from OD by focusing explicitly on the dynamics of power and oppression in an organization (Chesler; Katz & Miller, 1997).

In the ideal, MCOD results in an organization that embraces full social and cultural representation on all levels; the elimination of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression; full inclusion and valuing of differences; and the redistribution of power and influence among all stakeholders (Jackson & Holvino, 1988). Change strategies flow from an assessment ofthe organization's level of multicultural development (from monocultural to multicultural) (Jackson & Holvino). MCOD is broad in scope and encompasses a range of intervention models: legal compliance (for example, affirmative action), prejudice reduction, intercultural awareness, managing diversity, valuing differences, and anti-racism (Chesler, 1994; Iglehart, 2000; Jackson & Holvino). These models vary in the degree of organizational change achieved; yet each is appropriate for an organization depending on its stage of multicultural development.

A multicultural human services organization exhibits an emphasis on social change and empowerment; interventions that build on client strengths and resources; workplace practices that reflect a multicultural ideology; connections to client communities and networks; links to relevant policy making, professional and resource associations or arenas; ties to local, national, and international networks; and development of an intraorganizational learning environment (Gutierrez & Nagda, 1996). A multicultural agency is not achieved merely with the addition of ethnic-based programs or staff representing specific groups, although these efforts could be the foundation for continued change. Nor is a multicultural human services organization the same as an ethno-conscious agency, which is organized by a particular racial or ethnic group to serve its needs (for example, a Latino health agency or Southeast Asian refugee center) (Nagda, Harding, & Holley, 1999). A fully realized multicultural agency is premised on a broader definition of diversity, a reconfiguration of power and privilege, and a commitment to social justice. It strives to create one culture premised on the strengths of various groups (for example, race, socioeconomic status, gender) and perspectives within the organization.

Yet, comprehensive MCOD is undermined because the unique features of human services agencies (that is, altruistic missions, multiple and ambiguous goals, democratic impulses, moral rationales for work, personalized worksites, and multiple stakeholders) make long-term planning difficult (Gutierrez & Nagda, 1996). The environment of human services agencies is often capricious and hostile, making acquisition of resources and legitimacy difficult. Human services tend to be in states of crises, rendering them risk aversive or resistant to change (Asamoah, 1995; Bocage et al., 1995; Perlmutter, 2000). Change usually occurs under duress (Iglehart & Becerra, 1995). As with any planned change, the success of MCOD depends on how these challenges are understood and resolved (Asamoah; Brody, 1993; Perlmutter).


This qualitative exploratory study identified the daily realities of multicultural practice, the challenges to MCOD in human services, and some solutions. Qualitative approaches are increasingly used in organizational research (Gummerson, 2000; Lee, 1999). Examples from social work include empowerment (Gutierrez, GlenMaye, & DeLois, 1995), diversity initiatives (Hyde, 1998), and organizational innovation (Shin & McClomb, 1998).

Data for this study consisted of in-depth interviews with 20 practitioners and 20 consultants in a New England metropolitan area. I used the combined sampling techniques of reputational case selection (respondents are chosen on the basis of expertise) and purposive selection (inclusion of respondents with certain characteristics) (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Primary considerations for sample construction were that informants had knowledge of and experience with multicultural development in the human services and that the total sample be diverse. I, in consultation with colleagues, selected an initial group of eight from my professional networks. Respondents from this group then recommended the rest of the sample.

Of the consultants interviewed, 11 were women and nine were men--four Latinos, seven black people, eight white people, and one Asian. All had a master's or a doctorate degree. Their experiences were mostly with social services, educational, and community-based agencies; some also worked with businesses. Ofthe practitioners, 13 were women and seven were men--three were Latina, five were black, nine were white, and three were Asian. They worked in agencies that provided job training, health care, housing, family preservation, substance abuse recovery, support for elderly people, and community development. All but two held management positions. Their organizations ranged in size from three to 40 paid staff, and most relied on volunteers. Most of the practitioners had experience initiating or overseeing MCOD efforts.

Data were gathered through unstructured schedule interviews (Denzin, 1989). In such an interview, there is a list of questions, but order, phrasing, and follow-up are tailored to each informant. Flexibility is the hallmark of such interviews, so that unanticipated ideas and insights can be pursued. Interviews covered personal philosophy, history of involvement, agency context, factors that enhanced and sabotaged positive outcomes, and examples of successes and failures. Informants were provided with a definition of MCOD (Gutierrez & Nagda, 1996; Jackson & Holvino, 1988) and asked to compare their practices with that model. I conducted the interviews and tape-recorded and transcribed the data for analysis.

The constant comparison process guided data analysis (Charmaz, 1983; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Initial coding of interviews followed topics listed in the interview protocol; unanticipated concepts and insights also were noted. Core themes (expected and not) in each interview were identified. Themes were compared across interviews to determine areas of common focus and points of disagreement in the sample. Analytical categories regarding MCOD processes were developed. Through this iterative analysis, I identified a diversity-training model for human services (Hyde, 1998), challenges to implementation, and possible solutions.


Respondents identified numerous challenges to fully conceptualizing and implementing MCOD efforts. They also indicated solutions that they had used to address these barriers. Respondents reported that fundamental shifts in power dynamics, the core of MCOD, proved most elusive (Hyde, 1998). Respondents more readily identified barriers than remedies, perhaps indicative of the difficulties or frustrations in pursuing this work. They focused more on organizational and individual problems, rather than on problems created by the larger environment. The identification and explanation of these problems and remedies are shaped by the daily realities of agency functioning in general and multicultural practice in particular.

Daily Realities

The practitioners, mostly managers or supervisors, were asked to describe the overall functioning of their agencies before, during, and after MCOD interventions; consultants were asked to share their observations of organizational functioning. Three interrelated areas that shaped subsequent understandings of barriers and remedies were identified: (1) agency climate, (2) motivations for MCOD interventions, and (3) current multicultural practice.

Agency Climate. Practitioners overwhelmingly described their human services agencies as chaotic and stressful: "Most of the time, I don't think that I or my staff knows if we are coming or going." Consultants picked up on this climate, noting that the agencies seemed to "lurch from crisis to crisis." Many practitioners complained that their staff were not fully prepared or competent enough to handle the current realities of agency-based social work. Descriptors such as energetic, enthusiastic, or creative were rarely mentioned with respect to staff.

A primary reason for this rather dismal portrait of agency life is the economic problems with which agencies contended in the 1990s. Nearly 75 percent of the practitioners reported that downsizing of their agencies occurred during that period. This made staff anxious about job security. It also meant that agencies could not offer salaries that might entice or retain highly skilled staff. The changing nature of clients also shaped agency climate. Practitioners reported that client problems were much more complex and entrenched than they had seen before: "There is no such thing as a 'simple case' anymore. A woman comes into our agency to get help with a substance abuse problem. But she also doesn't have the skills or ability to hold a job, her children's father has gone AWOL, and there is no public assistance program to help her financially. It's a mess." As reflected in this comment, the shrinking public sector, particularly diminished public welfare programs, had a detrimental effect on these agencies. Overall, respondents reported that many, if not most, agencies exuded a demoralized, rather than innovative, climate.

Motivations for MCOD. Despite this climate of demoralization, all the agencies represented by the practitioners forged ahead with some MCOD plans. Agencies engaged in multicultural development for a variety of reasons that in turn shaped the kinds of multicultural practice adopted. Every practitioner, and most consultants, indicated that the primary motivator for MCOD work was to better serve clients: "For us to really help our clients, we need to develop programs that are more culturally sensitive and have staff adequately trained to implement them." This rationale informs MCOD interventions that improve the cultural competence of staff. A more general (or vague) version of this was the often-mentioned belief that MCOD was the right thing to do: "You just can't claim to do good social work anymore without paying attention to diversity. Some of this is about being politically correct. But mostly, it really is about providing the most appropriate services to clients who really need our help." The other most frequently stated rationale for MCOD was to smooth hiring and retention processes, specifically regarding the diversification of staff. This motivation usually led to sensitivity training for existing staff.

Few respondents indicated that MCOD was undertaken to challenge the dominant organizational culture, because it was a larger part of strategic planning, or because of management declaration. The respondents who cited these reasons were more likely to engage in successful MCOD efforts, because such rationales point to the need for long-term, well-planned, and substantial organizational changes.

Current Multicultural Practice. Respondents described the daily realities of multicultural practice as largely focusing on helping white staff obtain cultural competence skills appropriate for work with diverse client groups. The increasingly heterogeneous client base that agencies served necessitated this: "A few years ago we saw mostly white and black clients. Now it seems that we've got a bit of everything. We need to be skilled in working with different Asian ethnicities, with Latinos, with Caribbean refugees." Multicultural practice was framed as a set of skills acquired by individual practitioners, not as an organizational-level intervention that would alter the agency's culture. Practitioners believed that their line staff were ill-prepared to deal with client diversity, and thus the emphasis on individual techniques.

Multicultural practice also was implemented through the hiring and retention of staff of color. Most of the agencies represented by the practitioners had predominantly white staff. One route to being more multicultural is to hire staff from the same ethnic and racial groups as the clients. Yet, several practitioners lamented that such staff were either difficult to find or, when hired, did not remain. Consultants observed that agencies were often unable to engage in agencywide strategies that would improve the overall climate for staff of color: "Sometimes I think administrators assume they can go hire a black or Latino worker and just drop that person into the middle of the agency without any thought about how receptive other staff are going to be. Everyone says that they want a diverse staff, but in reality, there are a lot of suspicions about competency and fitting in. No wonder minority staff leave."

Multicultural practice was largely limited to concerns about race and ethnicity. There was little mention of socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The daily realities of agency work, including multicultural practice, formed the backdrop for the discussion on challenges and solutions. Some daily realities were significant impediments to comprehensive MCOD.


The challenges to multicultural development identified by the respondents cluster into four areas: (1) the sociopolitical environment, (2) organizational dynamics, (3) conceptualization of the change effort, and (4) consultant competence. Each area influences the others; for clarity, however, each is discussed separately.

Sociopolitical Environment. These challenges encompass threats from the broader environment. Respondents indicated that a most serious and overwhelming challenge to MCOD is a troubled or unstable economy. In this case, local and regional economies experienced a downturn during most of the 1990s. Downsizing, privatization, and fiscal cutbacks dominated the human services arena in which these respondents practiced. Informants noted that the economic and political backlash against human services forced organizational innovations: "The biggest barrier to success is a bad economy. When an agency is fighting for fiscal survival it's difficult to undertake another controversial or demanding change like diversity."

The other sociopolitical barrier to MCOD is local, focusing on the kind of relationship an agency has with the surrounding community. Poor agency--community relations, as this consultant suggested, are impediments: "A major obstacle is that most agencies don't know what is going on in their communities. They're not community focused. Most agencies have a deficit approach toward community residents, and that's antithetical to multicultural work." Legitimacy, which is based in part on the agency's relationship with the community, is essential for MCOD. MCOD calls for full involvement of organizational stakeholders, including community members. When an agency holds neglectful or patronizing views of the community, MCOD is sabotaged.

Organizational Dynamics. Respondents primarily focused on agency-level challenges. The most frequently mentioned were workload issues, specifically competing agency priorities and high work demands with inadequate support. Because of fiscal cutbacks, practitioners reported that they and their staff were forced to do more with less. Consequently, MCOD was set aside: "I want to do dialogues, workshops, and other multicultural learning activities, but the staff say they are overwhelmed. They say that they need to spend time on their cases, even if I say otherwise." The increasing complexity of client problems compounded this workload dilemma. Respondents indicated that clients reported multiple stressors that required more time-consuming interventions: "Our biggest crisis is staff overload. Staff go from crisis to crisis and don't have time to do much else." MCOD is not a priority, given the more pressing need to serve clients.

Poor agency leadership also challenged MCOD efforts. Respondents saw weak leadership as a failure to promote a multicultural vision or participate in multicultural efforts. One trend was management mandating multicultural work without providing fiscal or personal support: "Administration always wants to focus on line staff; they don't think it applies to themselves." This fragments multicultural development and sends a signal that it is not essential to the agency. Yet MCOD involves the entire organization and needs to be championed by the leader.

Respondents observed that earlier, unsatisfactory outcomes resulted in people becoming alienated from and frustrated with MCOD. This generated hostility toward current and future efforts. A practitioner noted that a consultant so mishandled training that "it really put a damper on the staff to do this work. It's hard enough without a so-called expert screwing up and undermining this." Respondents claimed that agency members adopted a "here we go again" attitude and disengage, and that continued failures signified insincere leadership.

Conceptualization of the Change Effort. The ways in which MCOD is understood and initiated shapes success. Respondents indicated that "quick fixes" to crises had little chance of leading to comprehensive change. Crises included a racial incident between staff, a funder's report that cited a lack of diversity, and an inability to provide services to clients in a culturally appropriate way. Such events indicate more entrenched problems. Respondents viewed the quick fix as leadership's means of placating organizational members: "I often get brought in because of a crisis. There is some flare-up and management wants me to throw water on it and then leave."

Also deemed problematic were short-term, add-on events such as one-day workshops. These approaches can impart useful information and are often viewed as "better than nothing." Yet, they and quick fixes sabotage MCOD because little or no integration of multicultural principles or practices occurs. Without integration an agency cannot sustain MCOD efforts, which contributes to a sense of failure: "We always get a training session, not the needed long-term problem solving work. There's no follow-up. Staff say 'well, that was interesting, now let's go back to the way we used to do things.'"

Consultant Competence. Given that a consultant often has a key role in MCOD efforts, much attention was focused on consultant roles and abilities. An agency looks to consultants to frame the effort, guide the process, impart needed skills, and challenge status quo actions. Respondents asserted that consultants undermine MCOD when they reinforce quick fixes and short-term and add-on approaches or fail to help the agency examine its existing dynamics: "The training was this 'we can all get along' business. We can all coexist, we don't deal with oppression or exploitation, power or privilege. Instead we can all be happy! But we never got anywhere."

A consultant who did not assess or get to know an agency was viewed as problematic. Typically, such a consultant was inflexible, using a "canned" approach rather than tailoring interventions to the agency: "You must be open and understand the group, and a lot of trainers don't do that. They just follow a routine. Agencies have their own values and motivations, their own histories." Respondents suggested that not fully understanding the agency often resulted in a poor fit between agency needs and consultant practices. Consequently, when a problem arose in training or other intervention events, the consultant was unable to respond in helpful ways: "When we got to the change strategies part, things got really tense. But the consultants had no ability to help us. They gave us a rap, showed a video that didn't apply to us, and did an exercise. We needed help constructively dialoging, but didn't get that."

A common problem for consultants is resistance or discomfort of agency members, which occurs often and, respondents noted, should be expected. There are numerous reasons for discomfort and resistance: fear for one's position, forced participation, lack of incentives or rewards, workload, a presumed "correct" viewpoint, and pre-existing group distrust. Problems arise when these concerns are not addressed. A consultant's inability to understand and address why discomfort or resistance occurs hinders MCOD efforts: "One exercise focused on who is in and out of agency power. But the group wasn't ready for something like that, and many people just freaked out. And then there was no time [to] deal with their reactions. The consultant says, 'There's a lot here for you to work with' and then moved on. This shattered the group and did more harm than good." Such incidents set in motion a vicious cycle in which agency members became increasingly unwilling to undertake multicultural development.


Four interrelated responses were suggested: (1) collaborative environmental relations, (2) leadership development, (3) assessment and planning, and (4) consultant selection. These solutions are what the respondents facilitated or engaged in, as opposed to hypothetical strategies for addressing the challenges.

Collaborative Environmental Relations. Respondents said that little could be done to change a hostile political or economic environment. Yet, they proposed local-level strategies that help agencies acquire or maintain scarce resources; for example, diversifying an agency's funding base so that survival would not rest on one or two funders. Respondents suggested that agencies seek support from funders that facilitate multicultural efforts: "Our funders pushed the initial diversity efforts. They made it clear that they weren't going to continue to fund an all-white group, no matter how good our programs were." Another means of resource development is to pursue MCOD in coalition with other like-minded agencies. This approach helps with the costs (for example, sharing a consultant) and has the added benefit of community building: "Coalitions became a real multicultural tool for us. We took the time to bring together a diverse collection of groups who were willing to work on a shared community problem."

In addition to forging links with other agencies, respondents stressed the importance of collaboration with the community. Several consultants said that they train agency members in how to do strength-oriented community assessments, so they better understand what the area offers and needs. Offering organizational resources to area residents and groups enhances community relations as well as MCOD efforts: "We promote the empowerment of diverse groups by providing access to services, office space, and equipment that are usually not available to underrepresented groups. In this way we extend our multicultural mission." Participating in community events such as a street fair or protests for fair housing demonstrates an agency's allegiance to the area and cultivates its community legitimacy.

Leadership Development. Respondents conceded that little could be done to challenge uncommitted leaders. Although support of the leader is essential, compelling the leader to act in such a way is beyond the scope of the consultants and some of the practitioners. Yet, there are responses to a leadership void. One is to cultivate new leadership so that multicultural principles and approaches are spread throughout the agency. Respondents noted that leadership comes not only from management, but also from the board, staff, or clients. As one consultant said, "As part of my assessment, I try to determine who is committed or excited about diversity. That's who I want to lead the activities. I argue in favor of that person being involved from the start." Practitioners also indicated that they cultivate staff who demonstrate concern for multicultural issues.

Respondents suggested that it is possible to work with weak (as opposed to uncommitted) leadership. Leaders may be weak in the multicultural arena because they do not fully understand or are afraid of what it entails. One practitioner, sympathetic to her often-reluctant boss, offered this insight: "Remember that a lot of people who are heading agencies were trained before multiculturalism came into vogue. Many just don't get it or think it's another fad. And some, like my boss, think it's an attack on how they have been practicing social work, so they get really defensive." Understanding this leads to interventions with incumbent leaders that build on their strengths and challenge them to further develop their skills: "Often I'll work at first only with the director and the board. I try to help them understand their role in the change process. I give them a crash course in why organizational diversity is important. I try to help them anticipate what is likely to happen so they can actively steer the agency through the process. I need to engage the leaders beyond a vague notion that they ought to be doing this [MCOD] work."

Many of the practitioners headed their agency's MCOD efforts, and their leadership actions were instructive. They emphasized the importance of exemplifying a commitment to multiculturalism beyond the rhetoric: "As a white woman doing anti-racism work, I was a powerful role model. It mattered to the staff that I was openly anti-racist and acted on those beliefs." Actions included pursuing financial support for multicultural training, encouraging staff to learn about cultures that are different from their own and sharing what they learned with other staff, facilitating staff discussion on issues of power or oppression, and challenging discriminatory practices. The practitioners stressed the importance of life-long learning, open communication, full participation, and integration of multicultural approaches in everyday practice. Overall, respondents viewed good leadership as being open to differing perspectives, encouraging involvement in organizational decisions and events, and promoting multicultural principles and practices as part of the agency's core culture.

Assessment and Planning. Respondents were adamant that careful assessment and planning is critical to the success of MCOD efforts. Quality assessment and planning activities clarify why MCOD is undertaken; determine the scope of what needs to happen and the level of commitment and available resources, facilitate input and participation from various stakeholders; suggest intervention strategies; and send a message that this is a serious organizational undertaking. Assessment and planning occurred either before hiring a consultant, with the results informing the process, or under the guidance of a consultant, as in this successful case: "I think the reason why our efforts worked so well was that our consultant engaged us at the start with an organizational self-study. He helped us figure out what we needed to know, how to get it, and how to use all the information. We learned how to make the process inclusive."

Respondents suggested that one of the most important outcomes of assessment and planning was to help agency members understand that MCOD is a long-term change process. Rather than assume that a few training sessions would solve "the problem," assessment and planning reframed the purposes of training as a catalyst for continued action, not as the final result. Understanding the long-term nature of MCOD helped integrate the efforts into the agency; it is difficult to use a quick-fix or add-on approach when the scope of what needs to happen is made clear. Further integration occurred when the assessment and planning process was an open one. It facilitated the input of various perspectives and helped agency members determine how and when they could contribute: "You have to have a good assessment. Not only do I, as a consultant, get to know the agency, but members get to know it as well. To succeed you need agency-wide participation. You need to have everyone feel that they are owners of the process. Assessment is the key."

Consultant Selection. Respondents, noting that many organizations did not take the time to screen consultants carefully, stressed several attributes to consider when contracting with a consultant. Generally, respondents observed that most consultants are hired for their expertise on specific groups (for example, women, Latinos, or gay men). Neglected in the selection process is attention to the consultant's skills in assessment and group dynamics; yet most respondents believed that these traits are more important to successful MCOD.

The consultant must be willing to spend time with the agency before any training or other actions so that interventions can be tailored to organizational needs: "When I consult with an agency, I insist on talking to different people, at all levels, to get their perceptions. The purpose of this is to get different ideas of what is going on, what the problems are, from everyone. Then I can suggest particular actions that suit the organization." Differing views and needs stem from varying levels of expertise and degrees of comfort that agency members display. MCOD, if done thoroughly, generates anxiety and discomfort: "Part of being a good consultant is being able to anticipate discomfort in people. There is a level of discomfort that may be okay, it's the discomfort that comes from learning." Discomfort and resistance require attention and interpretation so that backlash and sabotage do not occur. Thus, an agency needs to determine from a prospective consultant how she or he handles difficult moments. Several respondents spoke of developing ground rules that would guide participation and ban notions that there was only one correct way of thinking: "I emphasize confidentiality and respect and spend a lot of time up front working with the group around establishing these norms. We come up with our own rules for how we want to behave, how we can safely be open and honest. It helps them take ownership for the process." An agency wants a consultant who does not rigidly espouse one view and can uphold principles of inclusivity so that a psychological safety net for participants is created.

The consultant should also demonstrate the ability to bring various organizational stakeholders into the MCOD planning process. A consultant eventually leaves the agency, usually before the MCOD process is completed, so it is vital that an agency team can guide the effort. One practitioner attributed her agency's success to the consultant's ability to establish a viable advisory group: "The consultant helped our director name a diversity group made up of people from all through the agency--management, line staff, the board, some clients, clerical work[er]s. We had never all worked together before, so [the consultant] helped us develop as a group and taught us assessment skills so we could determine what the agency needed. It was a lot of work, but a year into the process we still meet weekly to figure out what we are doing well and what we need to do. We've been able to do that without the consultant, who left three months ago."

Because many agencies engaged in MCOD during times of crises, consultants offering a quick fix were often selected. If an agency wants to pursue full-fledged multicultural development with outside assistance, it needs a consultant adept at facilitating long-term change. In particular, consultants with strategic planning expertise are recommended. Respondents suggested that the agency be clear about its own needs before selecting a consultant, to promote "goodness of fit." Agencies need to consider more than one consultant, and an agency team (not the director alone) should interview candidates. Agencies should discuss what they need and whom they are considering with other organizations; working in concert helps find the best resources. But no matter how skilled the consultant is, if the organization, especially the leadership, is not truly committed to MCOD, then superficial change is the likely outcome.


Practitioners and consultants identified challenges to multicultural development in human services agencies and offered solutions that they had used. They also described the day-to-day realities of agency functioning, which served as a backdrop for MCOD. Although exploratory, this study suggests how MCOD can be initiated and sustained. In many respects, MCOD is similar to other forms of organizational innovation and change. Successful transformation is planned and purposeful, long-term, based on careful assessment, participatory, and fully integrated into the organization. Leaders, both formal and informal, and other organizational stakeholders guide the process. Resistance is expected and is not placated or ignored (Brody, 1993; Perlmutter, 2000). MCOD dovetails with empowerment approaches to organizational practice; barriers and supports for empowerment practice are like those for MCOD (Gutierrez, GlenMaye, & DeLois, 1995; Iglehart, 2000; Nagda, Harding, & Holley, 1999).

MCOD is more complicated than "generic" organizational change because of its explicit focus on power and privilege, cultural identities, and oppression (Chesler, 1994; Jackson & Holvino, 1988). In U.S. society, discussions of race, gender, and socioeconomic status are difficult at best, and often taboo. Social work has its own legacy of oppressing or neglecting disenfranchised groups and now struggles to put often well-meaning intentions into practice (Iglehart & Beccera, 1995). This rectification is particularly hard when people feel threatened or chastised; yet, because MCOD challenges the status quo, that is what organizational members are likely to feel. Multicultural development is a unique form of organizational change and needs to be framed as such.

This study indicates that the burden for conceptualizing and guiding MCOD efforts falls heavily on agency leaders (usually the executive director). Lack of leadership support and involvement were significant barriers and almost impossible to surmount. Shin and McComb (1998) found that the most important predictor of successful organizational innovation was a leader who possessed a "vision setter" style, manifested by attention to emerging trends, creative problem solving, inventiveness, motivation, and influence. Such traits in a leader, plus a deep belief in the importance of multiculturalism, are essential for an agency engaging in MCOD.

Yet, as suggested in the discussion on daily realities, these are difficult rimes for human services agencies, particularly for management. The chaotic agency climate, as a result of economic problems and more complex clients, reappeared as a significant barrier to MCOD in the form of a troubled economy and workload issues. Studies indicate that managing diverse staff and responding to diverse client populations (aspects of MCOD) are only two of many challenges faced by human services administrators (Bocage et al., 1995; Fong & Gibbs, 1995; Hasenfeld, 1996; Shin & McClomb, 1998). These challenges exist in rapidly changing economic, political, and technological environments. Increasingly, agency performance is based on efficiency and effectiveness. Consequently, MCOD efforts need to be connected to larger concerns of organizational maintenance, viability, and performance standards.

The primary motivations for MCOD do not necessarily result in long-term, comprehensive change. The popular "to do the right thing" sounds good rhetorically but does not sustain multicultural development in an era of fiscal constraint. Instead, MCOD needs to he tied to the agency's bottom line (Katz & Miller, 1997). Although respondents noted that MCOD conceptualization (for example, assessment, planning, integration, long-term change) was a factor in its success, the primary motivation to serve clients better usually led to individual skill development. This means that agency leaders need to carefully articulate the reasons for MCOD in ways that raise it to a comprehensive organizational-level intervention.

Respondents barely discussed the responsibilities or actions of staff (apart from leadership). Yet, staff commitment is necessary for success (Ferguson, 1996; Iglehart & Becerra, 1995). Concerns, such as discomfort and resistance, were viewed as tests of understanding for the leaders or consultants, not as problematic staff actions, per se. But in discussions about agency climate, practitioners repeatedly raised concerns about the competence and engagement of their staff. However, respondents did not connect these concerns to MCOD success, although an ill-prepared or disinterested staff is an impediment to organizational change (Perlmutter, 2000). Improving the broader organizational climate so that it supports innovation and investment by staff is another challenge for human services managers.

Although agency leaders set the tone for and ultimately guide MCOD, this research indicates that the consultant is often the key "hands-on" person. Yet, there is a dearth of information on how to select a consultant, let alone a consultant to assist with MCOD (Katz & Miller, 1997). The respondents' suggestions are useful starting points. So that scarce resources (that is, money and time) are not squandered, an agency must use great care in finding a consultant who understands the organization's current status and can constructively challenge it to change. A consultant needs to understand the agency's environmental pressures and how those pressures affect organizational innovation. The agency has to resist viewing the consultant as a panacea for its problems, or as a scapegoat for failures, if full organizational participation has not occurred.

Multicultural human services agencies are more necessary than ever before. Demographic shifts clearly indicate this, as does the political backlash against disenfranchised groups. MCOD is a complex process in which full realization is unlikely. Nonetheless, this study's respondents would advocate for persistence, because even partial changes can make significant differences in the lives of clients and staff and can become building blocks for future work. The agency that strives toward a multicultural ideal is increasingly capable of providing culturally appropriate and nurturing services for those in greatest need.


Asamoah, Y. (1995). Managing the new multicultural workplace. In L. Ginsberg & P. R. Keys (Eds.), New management in human services (2nd ed., pp. 115-127). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Bocage, M. D., Homonoff, E. E., & Riley, P. M. (1995). Measuring the impact of the fiscal crisis in human services agencies and social work training [Notes from the Field]. Social Work, 40, 701-705.

Brody, R. (1993). Effectively managing human service organizations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Charmaz, K. (1983). The grounded theory method. In R. Emerson (Ed.), Contemporary field research: A collection of readings (pp. 109-126). Boston: Little, Brown.

Chesler, M. (1994). Strategies for multicultural organizational development. Diversity Factor, 2(2), 12-18.

Denzin, N. (1989). The research act. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Ferguson, S. (1996). Towards an anti-racist social service organization. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 4(1), 35-48.

Fong, L., & Gibbs, I. (1995). Facilitating services to multicultural communities in a dominant culture setting. Administration in Social Work, 19(2), 1-24.

Gummerson, E. (2000). Qualitative methods in managerial research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gutierrez, L., GlenMaye, L., & DeLois, K. (1995). The organizational context of empowerment practice: Implications for social work administration. Social Work, 40, 249-258.

Gutierrez, L., & Nagda, B. (1996). The multicultural imperative in human service organizations. In P. Raffoul & C. McNeece (Eds.), Future issues in social work practice (pp. 203-213). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hasenfeld, Y. (1996). The administration of human services. In P. Raffoul & C. McNeece (Eds.), Future issues in social work practice (pp. 191-202). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hyde, C. (1998). A model for diversity training in human service agencies. Administration in Social Work, 22(4), 19-33.

Iglehart, A. (2000). Managing for diversity and empowerment in social services. In R. Patti (Ed.), The handbook of social welfare management (pp. 425-444). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Iglehart, A., & Becerra, R. (1995). Social services and the ethnic community. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Jackson, B., & Holvino, E. (1988). Multicultural organizational development (PCMA Working Paper Series No. 11). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Program on Conflict Management Alternatives.

Katz, J., & Miller, F. (1997). Between monoculturalism and multiculturalism: Traps awaiting the organization. In D. Van Eynde, J. Hoy, & D. Van Eynde (Eds.), Organizational development classics (pp. 292-302). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lee, R. (1999). Using qualitative methods in organizational research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Miles, M., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Nagda, B., Harding, S., & Holley, L. (1999). Social work and multicultural organizational development: Toward empowering and empowered organizations. In W. Shera & L. Wells (Eds.), Empowerment practice in social work: Developing richer conceptual foundations (pp. 278-306). Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.

Perlmutter, F. (2000). Initiating and implementing change. In R. Patti (Ed.), The handbook of social welfare management (pp. 445-458). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Shin, J., & McClomb, G. (1998). Top executive leadership and organizational innovation: An empirical investigation of nonprofit human service organizations. Administration in Social Work, 22(3), 1-21.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Cheryl A. Hyde, PhD, is associate professor, School of Social Work, University of Maryland, 525 West Redwood Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21201; e-mail:

Original manuscript received July 17, 1998

Final revision received June 20, 2000

Accepted September 14, 2000
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.