Working with people from culturally diverse backgrounds

Working with volunteers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can add value to your organisation, create an inclusive environment, strengthen positive relationships with the local community, bring new perspectives and encourage people from different backgrounds to use your services.

However, organisations need to be mindful that involving people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in volunteer programs is a long process, especially if you want the volunteer program to be sustainable. Organisations need to focus on one community and then progressively involve other communities.

This page looks at how to best involve people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in volunteer programs, while ensuring the volunteer program is sustainable, and that both volunteers and the organisation benefit from a culturally diverse volunteer involvement. This section provides more in-depth information and tips for working with people from diverse cultures.

Researching communities

Including people from diverse backgrounds into your volunteer program is easy; there are just a few things you have to do before recruitment. The first is research. It's important to find out the various demographics in your community, understand their needs and consult with community leaders. Doing proper research means you can give the community what they actually need. Each community has different cultures, opportunities and challenges that need different responses.

After getting to know the different cultures, identify one community that you want to actively include in your volunteer program. Involving different cultures is a long process. To do it right, you have to allow for a lot of time to consult with the community and community leaders, learn about the culture, train staff and develop support systems. Once you feel the volunteer program is sustainable and working, you can always expand the program to involve more communities.

After identifying a community, involve community leaders in the initial planning and consultation stage. Attend community consultations to get a feel of the needs of the community and general cultural practices – how men and women interact, for instance.

Before actively recruiting volunteers from diverse backgrounds, work out how many volunteers your organisation can support, and whether you have enough experienced volunteers to guide the new volunteers. Generally it is more effective to start with a few volunteers.

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Training staff

Even before you begin recruiting people from different backgrounds, it is imperative to train paid staff and existing volunteers in cultural awareness and offer ongoing cross-cultural training. Cultural awareness and cross-cultural training helps avoid misunderstandings between clients, staff and volunteers from diverse backgrounds.

While conducting training, it is important to make the training relevant and practical. Ask staff to share their experiences and invite community leaders from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to share their stories and perspective. Don't be afraid to hire an interpreter. There is a link to a list of accredited translators in the Tools and resources section of this page.

It is also a good idea to train staff in how to use an interpreter. It is not intuitive to stop speaking after every point for someone to translate. Speakers who do not have training in how to work with interpreters often speak without a break for too long and some of their information can be lost.

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Recruiting volunteers from diverse backgrounds

The concept of formal volunteering is foreign concept to most people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities and can have different connotations. In some countries, volunteers have been used to convert people to different religious faiths and, in other cases, the word volunteering can have military associations. Another common idea is that if you don't pay for a service, it must be of a poor quality.

When actively recruiting people from culturally diverse communities, take the time to explain what volunteering, is and the benefits you can receive from volunteering. You can also omit the word volunteering when advertising for volunteer opportunities. It can be more effective to use the words 'assistance needed' or 'help wanted' when trying to reach a community not accustomed to the benefits of volunteering.

When trying to actively recruit people from a specific community, take advantage of ethnic newsletters, newspapers and community radio, and ask community leaders to promote volunteer opportunities and the benefits volunteers receive. If possible, make your advertisements bilingual to maximise the number of people who will understand them. Bilingual advertisements will also show that the volunteer opportunities are targeted to specific culture.

For many people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, taking the step to volunteer is a big deal. They are opening themselves up to a new concept and a new environment. It is important to make the recruitment process as easy as possible. Instead of asking for a written expression of interest to volunteer, you can invite potential volunteers to call you on the phone to chat about volunteer opportunities. Try to limit forms and paperwork to the essential, and provide assistance to new volunteers filling them out. For many, forms can be seen as a barrier to volunteering.

During the interview stage, try to create a comfortable, informal environment. Be mindful that, for people who do not speak English as their first language, how they were taught can impact whether they are better at speaking or writing. For example, China's education system is focused on rote learning and written English, so there is little opportunity for students to practice their spoken English. For the majority of Chinese who have learnt English in Chinese schools, their ability to read and write exceeds their speaking ability. Conversely, people who have learnt English through exposure to the western media (mainly American movies and television) reading and writing can be much more difficult than oral communication.

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Creating a welcoming environment

It is easy to show an organisation is welcoming to all cultures but few actually do it! Creating an inclusive welcoming environment is not hard or expensive. Try implementing the following tips:

  • Display a 'Welcome' sign in several languages in the reception area
  • Make sure your receptionist receives cultural awareness training and can assist people with poor English language skills
  • Include magazines and reading materials in languages other than English in the waiting room
  • Use images that are culturally appropriate
  • In internal and external communications, focus on tasks volunteers do rather than their background
  • Display photos of staff and volunteers on the wall with their responsibilities listed
  • Take the effort to learn people's names, even if you can't pronounce them at first.

The Migrant Information Centre (Eastern Melbourne) has produced a promotional poster that you can print and distribute in your office to help people think about how to create a welcoming environment.

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Culturally sensitive practices

When involving people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds into your organisation, you have to be respectful of their religious and cultural beliefs. This may mean rethinking whether events will serve alcohol, thinking about what types of meat are served, being flexible around prayer times so you don't plan meetings or events which will disrupt proceedings, and being mindful of volunteers who are participating in Ramadan.

Other things that can be distressing to people from different cultures include:

  • Referring to people by their first names may be disrespectful to some. Make sure you ask people how they want to be addressed. This can be included in the interview stage or on a registration form for induction
  • Women supervising male volunteers
  • Young people supervising older volunteers
  • Touching another person
  • Holding a person's gaze when they are speaking
  • Coughing and blowing one's nose
  • Dress codes
  • Different ways of greeting people

Another cultural difference which can cause a lot of frustration is the when you realise people who say yes actually mean no. This is a common dilemma when working with cultures that favour politeness over frankness. Particularly in Asian countries, it is common for people to agree to do a task even when they don’t know what they're supposed to do rather than ask for further instructions.

To avoid not really knowing whether a volunteer understands what you are asking of them, ask them to repeat back the instructions. This way you can work out whether you need to change what you are saying to get your message across. It is also worth remembering that politeness over frankness generally means you will find it difficult to have discussions and feedback.

Another thing that can cause confusion when working with groups from different cultures is the varying importance of time. In Australia, we value time. Generally we work 9 till 5, meetings start on time and we expect everyone to be present. In other countries, time is more flexible. You arrive to work when you have finished getting the children off to school and meetings start when the important people arrive. When scheduling events and relying on volunteers, it is important to reiterate to volunteers that it is important to arrive on time and if they are late, asking them why they are late rather than making assumptions.

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Overcoming language barriers

Language can be a barrier to both the volunteer and the organisation, but it can be overcome. Training and mentoring a volunteer who has a lower level of English than you can be exhausting, but it shouldn't be discouraging. In fact, seeing someone's level of English dramatically improve thanks to your tutoring can be extremely rewarding. Working with someone who has limited English language skills also provides a great opportunity to increase your understanding of basic English skills and grammar that many of us forget, as well as learning more about another culture.

It is important not to assume what the new volunteer's level of English is. Engage them in a conversation, ask what language is spoken at home and whether they can comfortably read and write. It will also be helpful to create a buddy system where native English speakers are partnered with non-English speaking volunteers. Ask staff to nominate themselves to be language support.

Using the buddy system, ask English speakers to take the time to explain complex legal requirements to non-English speaking volunteers. Working with Children Checks, confidentiality, privacy and occupational health and safety can all appear complex to someone not exposed to such concepts. For many cultures, the personal information you have to give when you join a new organisation can be daunting. Ask the buddies to explain that the information is confidential and won't be made available to the government or the public.

Using buddy systems in your organisation can do a lot to overcome language barriers and will be helpful to both the volunteer and the organisation.

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Tools and resources

AMES - Engaging CALD communities in volunteering in Victoria (PDF 178KB)
A guide for volunteer-involving organisations on how to engage and support volunteers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities and new and emerging communities.

National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI)
The national standards and accreditation body for translators and interpreters in Australia, who's services include a searchable database of accredited translators and interpreters.

Volunteering Australia - Resources for Volunteer Managers
This section of the Volunteering Australia website lists resources and publications for volunteer coordinators, on topics including recruitment and screening processes, working with culturally diverse volunteers and recognising volunteers.

Volunteering England - From Barriers to Bridges: Involving a broader range of volunteers
An English article (also relevant in the Victorian context) which explores barriers that people encounter to volunteering, and includes strategies to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to volunteer.

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Three female muslim volunteers smiling at the camera