Fearless thinking in the nonprofit sector: The power of unconventional thought

By David C. Forman
In April 19, 2017

A core message in “Fearless HR” is that if the HR profession coheres around an accepted purpose, it can become more aggressive, proactive and bold. A shared sense of purpose enables faster decision-making, less confusion and realistic expectations. The bottom line for HR is that it must be more about the bottom line. In this post, I’ll apply the same thinking I used in “HR Becomes More Fearless” in regards to for-profit businesses to the nonprofit sector.

Simply stated: HR’s purpose is to drive organizational results. Everything else is either a means to this end or a distraction.

This realization of a shared purpose is necessary, but not enough for HR to truly make a meaningful difference to the organization. To do so, HR must get better. It must improve its capabilities, and it must utilize its most important asset—expanding its relational capital by strengthening internal and external professional networks. As HR gets better, it can speak with more confidence, conviction and clarity. And when that happens, HR will be the force that drives nonprofits to perform better for the causes and communities they serve.

As HR embraces these new capabilities, how does it lead the nonprofit sector to drive stronger outcomes and results? This seems like a daunting challenge, but pathways can start to emerge. One way is to be more proactive, inquisitive and anticipatory; and to act before market opportunities are lost. A second way is for HR leaders to think in different terms, change the playing field and challenge convention.

Unconventional thinking is hard to do. It is, by definition, a rare occurrence. But unlike the past when HR leaders were not encouraged or, perhaps, even prepared to challenge conventional practices, it can now be a difference maker. It is the responsibility of all nonprofit leaders, and this includes HR, to act like owners, anticipate problems, seek new opportunities and create more leverage.

Let’s look at four specific ways in which unconventional HR thinking can help to strengthen your nonprofit organization:


It is standard practice in a for-profit company’s SWOT analysis to identify the three to five major competitors for a company’s products and services. However, the nonprofit sector thinks about competition differently: “the more players trying to solve this issue or address this need, the better.” But nonprofits do have competition for talent, and they’re up against nonprofits and for-profits alike.

Once the competitive arena shifts to talent and not services, a tool that arrays the specific employee value proposition (EVP) is crucial. Differentiation is the key: why exactly would a person choose to work for your nonprofit instead of another organization, or more importantly, a for-profit where they may make more money? An organization’s talent competitors may be quite different from each other. Nonprofits and for-profits alike can often compete for technical talent, for example, with a host of organizations from many different industries.

A disruptive idea: Don’t just think about traditional competitors like similar organizations; it is likely to be the unanticipated competitors that will have the biggest impact.

And learn how to differentiate yourself from those talent competitors. Year Up, a social enterprise aiming to help young adults join the job market, has seen a 49 percent annual growth rate of of students served since 2001 and has done so by going head-to-head with for-profit companies to get the best talent on the team. To stand out from their talent competition, they leverage their mission, focus on culture and growth, pay competitively and invest in leadership.

Sources of Talent

The war for talent is on; and it may become even more dire if global access to talent is restricted. The problem? Because companies and organizations are competing for the same pool of talent, that pool is receding. If everyone is going after the same candidates and skill sets, it very quickly becomes a shallow pool, so you have to find new places to look.

A different approach: Explore unconventional sources of untapped talent.  

Look where others are not looking. I learned this lesson firsthand as a young Air Force officer in the early 1970s. I was an application developer/programmer working on the NORAD air defense system in conjunction with a civilian contractor firm. The civilian team was always looking for new talent, and universities at that time did not offer degrees in this nascent field of application development. It turns out that this firm’s primary source for new talent was college music majors. At first glance this seems crazy, until all the parallels between music majors and application developers are delineated (i.e., both are mathematical, have their own language, use repeatable patterns and are artistic endeavors). The director of the civilian team said that this one creative (but perhaps risky) solution gave them a two to three year advantage over their talent competitors.

Approach applied

Google was concerned that perhaps some of their two to three million rejected job applicants might be a source of overlooked but exceptional talent. This segment was referred to as “false negatives,” and this initiative caused Google to assess more closely the qualities that lead to success.

As Laszlo Bock has said “The best people don’t always look like what you would expect.” Among Google’s findings: many traditional measures of merit such as college GPA, or even a college degree itself, did not matter as much as the best predictors of future success. These best predictors are providing a work product, followed by general cognitive ability and performance in structured interviews. So indeed, candidates were being excluded for the wrong reasons, and this candidate pool needed to be reexamined. Some of Google’s very top performers were given this second chance.

Southwest Airlines has followed a similar approach, albeit for quite different jobs and skills. Their mantra of “hire for attitude and train for the rest”  has served them well over the years, because it emphasizes the core foundation of a job. It also recognizes that a perfect candidate with all the right skills may be difficult to find in a shrinking talent marketplace, so why not focus on the important aspects first? When this type of thinking is applied, it can open up new well springs of talent.

Workforce Planning

Workforce planning focuses on preparing the nonprofit and its workforce for the future. It usually answers questions like: What is needed if sales grow by 15 percent? Or, what happens if 50 new stores are opened next year? In terms of the workforce, these forecasts are important to calculations of capacity (numbers) and capability (skills) needed to keep pace. This plan will also likely include different scenarios such as the best and worst cases that could be encountered. While these forecasting scenarios have value, they are no longer sufficient by themselves to mitigate the significant risk that pertains in an uncertain world.

A different twist: Probabilistic thinking.  

There are important differences between forecasts and strategic workforce planning (SWP) scenarios. Forecasts essentially extend the current state into the immediate future. SWP contemplates different possible futures beyond the current state. SWP is based on what Charles Duhigg has termed “probabilistic thinking” or what might occur.

Probabilistic scenarios deal with the unanticipated and new, such as: emerging competitors, disruptive technologies, changing economic and social patterns, different regulations, etc. In other words, all the uncertainties that nonprofits can face every day. These uncertainties, if not anticipated, could cripple an organization not prepared to address them.  

Approach applied

An HR Business Partner from a major national railroad led a discussion with colleagues on the possible impact that 3-D printing might have on transportation costs for large goods. Since this possibility had significant revenue implication, it captured management’s attention quickly.

By thinking about “what might happen,” HR can lead the effort to better prepare the company for uncertain futures. And as Duhigg points out, the research says that the more people think this way, the better their predictions of the future and the more impactful their responses.

Sources of New Ideas and Innovation

It is convenient to think that innovation comes from a few brilliant people. There are, after all, only so many Steve Jobs or Thomas Edisons. It would seem natural to take the smartest people, give them the charter to develop new initiatives, have them go off by themselves, protect their time and wait for their epiphanies.

We all tend to think that the smartest people have the best ideas; and maybe they do, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more innovative ideas for addressing social and environmental problems and a stronger organizations. Psychologists have called this the “naturalness bias,” and it is something we all succumb to; but it is shortsighted and wrong.

A better thought: Open it up.  

Perhaps the most unconventional thinking of all is the truth espoused by baseball great, Satchell Paige: “Ain’t none of us as smart as all of us.” And the science supports him. It is clear that diverse groups produce more innovative and creative ideas than similar teams that think alike. It is also true that people close to the work offer better, more practical ideas than those who are more removed. And it is clear that the number of ideas generated is the most direct path to quality thinking. So, the absolute worst action to take would be to limit perspectives and the number of people generating new ideas.

HR can provide a great service by creating ground-up innovation programs in which anyone can participate. Innovation should be crowdsourced, and not just be the province of an office, a title or certain people. Employees are much more likely to act like owners if they have a chance to truly shape the business.

Approach applied

An open architecture idea system is dependent on several cultural factors. It cannot just be grafted onto a rigid, hierarchical system in a week. Among the key cultural qualities that must be in place are:

  • Trust and transparency
  • Reciprocal benefits for both the employee and company
  • Collaborative team practices
  • Openness to different ideas
  • Inclusivity
  • Support for risks taken  

When this infrastructure is in place, HR has the opportunity to be a force-multiplier that provides unconventional thinking, new perspectives and fearless action.

Adam Gates in his book “Originals” provides context on how we can aim to be more original. He cites a study conducted by Houseman that looked at customer service agents and why some stayed in their jobs longer than others. After testing out many ideas, he found data that showed which Internet browser participants used when they applied for their jobs. To his amazement, data showed that people using Firefox or Chrome stayed longer (and had less absences, more sales and happier customers) than those that used Internet Explorer or Safari. And delving more into this non-intuitive finding, the researchers isolated the factors of not settling for the default browser (or the easy choice) and taking the initiative to change to something better. According to Gates, “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

Fearless HR is about getting better, asking questions, challenging convention, taking initiative to move forward and driving mission impact. These are the building blocks to unconventional wisdom and the pathway to its rewards. When HR seizes the initiative to think differently, it can lead the way forward. And in the nonprofit sector, that could make the difference between achieving your mission or falling short of your goals.

Leave A Comment