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Do You Deliver on DEI for Clients?

by Maryellen Hess Cameron 1 min read


Human services providers like you generally come to the table with a passion for helping others solve problems that lessen their stability, safety and security. Your education and experience have raised your awareness of how social and economic systems can be as much a part of the problem as they are part of the solution. Regardless of that fact we are all products of our environments, and we live in those silos. That’s why you and your organization must do more than put policies in place or take DEI training. You must build a process into your day-to-day work to be wary of implicit biases and stereotyping. 

What action does your organization currently take to practice a culture of inclusion among those you serve? How about for equity and diversity? It’s easy to write policies that support the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI.) It’s much harder to put them into action. Yet it is vital to your ability to build a meaningful rapport with all of the people you want to help. Before you can say with confidence your agency, as well as you as a provider, excel in this aspect of service you must take a good, hard look at the data. Case management software is a tool for finding the data you need for this evaluation.

What does Diversity, Equity and Inclusion even mean?

Diversity has been discussed for decades, primarily within the realm of racial, gender and ethnic identities. That is a narrow definition, when in fact there are other differences among people to understand.  Socio-economic backgrounds as well as current circumstances influence clients’ perceptions. A wider lens on diversity considers clients’ culture, neurodiversity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Your clients may have other differences as well, considering it’s tough to create an exhaustive list. Measuring the diversity of your clients can demonstrate whether your organization is reaching all of the people who may be eligible for its services and looking for ways to engage underrepresented groups.

Equity applies to outcomes, not inputs. In other words, people’s needs are not the same for achieving the same goal they may have in common. If you shoot for a certain outcome for all of your clients, they will need different interventions and support to get there.  Consider the picture from the Interaction Institute for Social Change. All of the children have a goal to see over the fence. On the left all of the children received the same sized box to boost them.

In the picture, the first child is tall enough to see over the fence without a box. It is a wasted resource. The middle child has a box perfect for his height. This box solved his problem efficiently. When the same sized box was given to the third child it did not solve his problem because it was inadequate, even if it was the same as the others. But the right side of the picture reveals how redistributing the boxes equalized the children’s outcomes. All of them could see the game beyond the fence by getting exactly what they needed. 

Inclusion refers to how your clients experience your organization, services and you. Think of it as a form of psychological safety. Do your clients feel respected and accepted? Can they tell you the truth of their lives without fear of judgement? And if they experience a disturbing reaction, do they have meaningful redress? Creating an inclusive environment means clients feel safe to spend time with you, around your co-workers and throughout the physical space. They are more likely to open up and share information they would otherwise hide.  You are trained to listen without bias or judgement when they describe their circumstances. But with a diverse set of clients your responses to them can feel different even if you are delivering them in the way you think it’s appropriate. At its heart, you and your agency are adapting to your client’s culture, as opposed to expecting them to adapt to yours.

Benefits of a DEI Focus

Many organizations have accepted the ideals of DEI conceptually. They may have worked to put principles in place, but have not really measured whether they are achieving them. In fact, employees may perceive that their desire to help a diverse population may automatically lead to a sense of inclusion and equity among the clients. But this desire is a motivation, not an outcome. 

Setting measurable DEI goals will require social service practitioners like you to understand the unique needs and perspectives of diverse clients more intentionally. This greater understanding will help you determine the interventions that are most likely to serve their clients. It will also lead to more productive conversations with clients where you can work together for better problem-solving. 

Gathering the DEI data can document the ways our social and economic systems are inequitable and have built in barriers to success for the very people social services are designed to help. When you track the data and can show how the systems are failing you are contributing to the big picture. This is useful for advocacy either by social workers individually or through professional associations. 

The benefits of client rapport go both ways. You, as a case manager, can experience burnout from feeling like you are getting nowhere with your clients. If you are not communicating in a way that reaches them based on their cultural and social norms they are less likely to respond to your advice and efforts. When they engage and actively work in resolving their issues you will gain satisfaction as their service provider.

Setting Your DEI Goals

The most successful DEI goals are actionable, measurable, and transparent, with timelines and identified parties who are responsible for overseeing the work and reaching your goals. This is just as true for any effort to set standards and create action steps for improving DEI outcomes.

Before you can establish activities to improve DEI outcomes you must know what you want to accomplish. This begins as a high level view of the typical person profile you serve versus the range of client profiles that could benefit from your services.

Outcomes for Diversity, Equity & inclusion

As we discussed above, even people whose overlapping characteristics are also varied in their total combination of experiences, backgrounds, needs and where they are in their lives. For example, you may make an educated guess about the diversity of those you serve versus the diversity of the total population who may be appropriate for your services. For example, you may know from the census how many people of different races fall into lower income socioeconomic status. You will want data to back up your educated guess, but you can start with the status of diversity. Perhaps your client race demographics show the percentage of clients who identify as black is consistent with census data. You are reaching at least a representative sample of people in this race group. On the other hand, you know that there is a measurable segment of the low-income population who are Hispanic. You know by day to day observations you are only reaching a small percentage of those for whom you can make a positive difference.

The DEI Data You Need

Chances are high you already collect basic demographic information about each person you serve. Nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies routinely collect data such as age, race, gender, income and similar characteristics. You have some process for recording the data, whether you use forms, spreadsheets, generic databases or case management platforms. Case management platforms like Casebook do not limit you to a set of pre-defined fields. You can add new fields for the specific data your organization needs to collect. For example, if you routinely deal with immigrants you might want to create a field for that. If you do not serve this population very often it may be sufficient to note that status in your case management notes. 

If your organization adds any technology to its set of tools it starts with a process for determining the specifications that will meet your needs. One approach is to consider the reports you have to run and then back into itemizing the information you need to collect. 

Using your technology to evaluate your progress on meeting DEI goals calls for a multi-prong approach. Of course you need to consider the defining characteristics your mission identifies: people reentering the community from serving time in jail or prison, homeless people, children in foster care, etc. Again, like demographics, there will be common data points you need to collect. Casebook, like most case management platforms, comes with many built in fields for typical characteristics needed by human services agencies. 

Your case management notes are the primary place to reflect discussions you have with clients to understand their complete set of beliefs and norms. This can be an open-ended process to show you want to incorporate cultural competency into your services, and establish a foundation for trust.

You can set up specific fields to collect data that your organization needs. These are called configurable fields. You can build as many fields as you need to capture the relevant data. Set them up with a drop down list of possible answers or a space for text answers. Administrators have access to the system to both configure the fields and to add the drop down menu items. 

Learn who is using your services, taking into account a set of characteristics defined by your mission. Casebook’s reporting system offers ways to collect the data you can drop into spreadsheets or visualize it with graphs and charts directly from the report. Both options provide simple trend analysis opportunities.

Other Tools to Gather DEI Data

You can supplement your data with outside sources if you want a deeper understanding of your potential clients as well as those already participating. 

Census Data
The census can be an excellent tool to establish some diversity baselines. You can look up reports that give simple data, and others that cross-reference characteristics. Suppose  you provide community services for a low-income population.

The U.S. Census issues reports from which you can look at different socioeconomic levels by race, education, family size, gender, ethnic backgrounds and more. The U.S. conducts a full census every ten years for all data points it collects with an intent to get information from every household in our states and territories. More frequent surveys of a sampling of people, known as the American Community Survey, supplements the decennial data. As a result you can find baseline data that is more current. 

Client Surveys for DEI

Many government and nonprofit organizations conduct client satisfaction surveys on a regular basis. These are instrumental in knowing how well your programs and services are working for the people you serve. They have valuable questions about the clients’ perceptions about whether they are better off because of your organization’s help.  
They may include questions about clients’ general satisfaction with how they are treated over the course of services. This is not enough to give you a picture of how well you perform on your DEI goals. Instead you will have to design questions that are more targeted. 

In fact, to be comprehensive without exhausting your respondents’ willingness to complete the entire survey, you may need to create a survey that is specific to DEI data points. If you phrase your questions artfully enough, you may uncover some less direct data as well. 

Let’s say you want to know why people of Hispanic descent do not seek out services or respond to outreach efforts from your organization. Instead of asking only why they do not engage with yours, you may ask what agencies they do receive services from. They do not have to be organizations providing similar services to yours, although it’s helpful if they are. You can phrase your follow-up question when they respond to agencies they use. Ask what they like about that agency. This approach should give you insights, and it is much more comfortable than asking what they don’t like about yours. 

Although it is harder to collate responses that are open-ended you can learn important information that way. Generally you can design your survey for a mix of answers that are easy to count, such as yes/no, multiple choice questions or ranked answers.

Implementing diversity, equity and inclusion principles is integral to a social service organization’s mission. Yet you cannot know whether your services are having optimal impact unless you also determine who you are serving, whether your services meet their needs for an equitable outcome and whether your organization feels like a safe, respectful place to be.  Case management software typically gathers basic relevant information. Software like Casebook allows users to configure it for more specific DEI measures. It is a vital tool to incorporate DEI and all of its benefits into your social service practice. 

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Maryellen Hess Cameron
Maryellen Hess Cameron spent over 25 years as the Executive Director of non-profit agencies in the social