Nonprofits Need Chief Decent Human Behavior Officers

Published by on November 28, 2023

In social impact we need to focus on the spaces between the work

There’s a wave in modern companies (especially in tech) for the People Officer—a position centered on issues of employee engagement, growth, and well-being. Organizations are no longer places where simply showing up and doing the work is enough. (If you ask me, this shifting landscape took longer than necessary.)

Nonprofits especially are waking up to the human beings who lead their mission and vision, because people create value, not businesses. Eighty percent of any organization’s budget is tethered to talent (people), so human beings are a great place to target energy and attention.

Especially since 2020, details like proximity to the office, PTO, pizza parties, and other “benefits” are being upended. For a sector driven by passion (social impact) this is a very good thing, and everyone benefits when managers and leaders start to focus on the spaces between the work we do.

These spaces have become significantly more pronounced. They extend well beyond an organization’s hierarchy. There are crossover projects, inter-departmental communications, organization-wide strategic plans—and it’s even more substantial than that. In most organizations, even against the backdrop of a formal structure, there are informal, unseen, and often under-utilized exchanges between many tiers of the hierarchy. Those things appear as core values or organizational culture, like the Executive Director who acknowledges when a worker completes a big project, has a new baby, or finishes grad school—all those between spaces that exist even (and especially) when we don’t see them.

As long as I can remember, little energy was spent on those systems, sometimes none at all. However, nonprofits (and all organizations) are systems, and to truly see those spaces we must zoom out and examine the whole.

Zooming out is a task for Chief Decent Human Behavior Officers

Chief Decent Human Behavior Officers (CDHBO) focus on those often-overlooked spaces, because nonprofit life is difficult when there isn’t anyone thinking about everyone. From a practical perspective, focusing on the between spaces can profoundly impact the work we do. Research shows employee engagement can bolster business outcomes — over 70% of leaders agree.

Some things about CDHBOs warrant clarifying before addressing the traits that make them great:

>>> It doesn’t matter what you call them — people officers, employee engagement directors, managers of people and growth — as long as you have someone focused on the right thing. (As a reminder, that’s people.)

>>> While a CDHBO may be one, singular role, it can be impactful for different teams and departments to identify their own CDHBO to keep track of, and encourage, those between spaces.

>>> Wherever and however you plant CDHBOs, it should be formally acknowledged so the entire organization, or individual teams, know where to turn when, or if, they need to.

Chief Decent Human Behavior Officers (CDHBO) focus on those often-overlooked spaces, because nonprofit life is difficult when there isn’t anyone thinking about everyone. From a practical perspective, focusing on the between spaces can profoundly impact the work we do

With all that in mind, I believe there are four traits that make for exceptional CDHBOs:

They have passion. CDHBOs love people and seeing them perform at their best. There are 100+ things on which you can train an employee, but passion is not one of them. (Not really.) The idea of building a better nonprofit from the inside-out is mission critical to them, and it’s personal.

They listen. Listening is a psychological act, compared to hearing which is physiological. CDHBOs tune out the noise and practice active, empathetic, generative listening. “Listening is more than waiting patiently for one’s turn to speak,” suggests Bradley Baurain, and that type of listening comes from a place of deep understanding and care.

They are jovial. CDHBOs (usually) have a smile on their face. They don’t take themselves too seriously, because work is hard enough by itself. The between spaces at work are sometimes even harder, so a light spirit is a perfect ingredient to encourage organizations’ people to be exceptional.

They are consistent. You get the same version of CDHBOs every day. They are emotionally tuned in and have a unique sense of depth, and they are steadfast in how they work within and around an organization. That steadiness exudes competence, which is organizational currency at its finest.

When bringing on new nonprofiteers, we often talk about hiring first for culture, then for skill. Sage advice, and difficult to practice in real life, but you can start at the beginning by crafting a list of values. Though that list might be miles long, what we really value is our most important assets: our people.

People are the foundation of the space between the work we do. As today’s nonprofits continue to evolve beyond the pandemic and other contemporary challenges, CDHBOs will be a transformative utility to help us see those spaces more clearly.

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Evan Wildstein is a Hiver and nonprofiteer with twenty years of experience in fundraising, strategy, and operations.
In addition to his work in social impact, Wildstein has coached organizations on board development and talent growth, commissioned operas, and produced learning initiatives. He is the author of recently released book, The Nonprofiteer’s Fundraising Field Guide: 30 Practical Ways to Boost Philanthropy Through Servant-Leadership.

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