Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.
Humanity United, or HU, is dedicated to cultivating the conditions for enduring peace and freedom. They support and work alongside partners who are working to advance human dignity and change the systems that enable violent conflict and human exploitation around the world.
We’ll start with their Managing Director, Srik Gopal
Srik Gopal: By design our organizational strategies go light on the whats and heavier on the hows because that’s really where we hope to have this consistency in the organization across our various programs; and candidly I believe that’s our secret sauce, is in the hows
The foundation for any good culture is excellent hiring. Lara, Roxanna, Mia, Tedria, and Ryan speak to how it’s done at HU.
Lara: And so when I read the job posting, it stood out right away. The language that was used was so accessible. It gave ample room for non-traditional candidates to apply anyway and made that very clear because so many people who would bring great value through lived experience to an organization select themselves out because they don’t meet some of the things that you really either don’t necessarily need for the role or are outweighed by the value of someone having lived experience on the issue. And then the interview process itself was, I mean, I had 3 interviews and they were like 10 people average each time. You would think that would be really overwhelming and I just loved it the whole time.
And a lot of that has to do with the way that, and Ryan was one of the people who interviewed me, I felt like everyone was rooting for me. It didn’t feel adversarial. It didn’t feel like an interrogation. It really felt like a conversation in which I was invited to share what I do best, what I believe, what I value
Roxanna: They weren’t necessarily saying like, our values are X, Y, and Z, but they were asking questions that ultimately will lead to showing whether I share those values or not. And also have questions more related to my passions and my interest in the field that I’m coming in.
Mia: For example, if we’re hiring somebody on the finance team, we’ll bring in people from peace building and in forced labor and human trafficking to talk to this person as well, to ask the questions they want to ask and make sure this person is a fit with our values and in our culture.
Tedria: I think HU does an incredible job of recruiting and hiring the right people that fit into the culture. I don’t think you necessarily can put on or take off your hat of joy, shared humility, curiosity and all of the things that should be a part of who you are as a person to work for an organization whose mission is to work on issues around human trafficking, peace building, and now racial equity and justice.
It’s not a putting on a mask, taking off the mask. We, all of us really, embody the work and who we are as individuals first, and it is shown through all of our work and how we show up each and every day.
Ryan: And one of the things I really appreciate is that we’ve moved into a model of recruitment, not only just doing panel interview processes, but also really having standard rubrics where candidates are asked the same questions. And those questions actually are mostly about our values because both in our programs and the types of grants we provide and in our recruitment, we really are mostly at this stage looking for values alignment.
After being hired the feeling you Belong is all important as Roxanna and Tedria explain.
Roxanna: When I came in, I came in when it was primarily remote and I didn’t have a chance to meet everyone until later on. And I feel like what helped me connect with people was the fact that every time I got into a call, they were like, oh, acknowledging the fact that I’m new and that I’m here and kind of talking to me, welcoming me.
Introducing themselves and kind of like sharing more information and like showing attention and like intention to meet with me and kind of talk more about my interests and why I’m here. And that sense of welcoming, like that’s welcoming sense is what helps us kind of feel like, okay, I’m part of this, like they see me as part of the team.
Tedria: If you were to walk in any of our all-staff meetings or into the D.C. office or the San Francisco office, it’s an energy that’s palpable in the air that you can feel from the moment you walk through the door. You just feel included. You feel like you belong and you feel like it’s a safe place to let your guard down.
Tedria describes a culture where everyone is willing to help you while Mia speaks to the empathy shown when making requests.
Tedria: From the moment I walked in the door, I mean, the onboarding process, there was a ton of information shared. But after that, amongst my team members and even outside of my team, everywhere I went, I think I would start a conversation and the ending kind of goodbye would be, let me know if you need anything else. Let me know how I can help you.
Mia: We all have a lot of projects we’re working on. We all have a lot of working groups that we’re part of and in places where we’re providing input. And I think one of the things that I’ve seen for my team in particular, when we make the ask of, would you want to be part of this focus group? Would you want to be a new hire buddy for somebody or things like that, is putting in a note and explicitly trying to call out, please feel free to say no. If you’re at capacity, you don’t have room to do more, please say no to this extra thing that we’re asking you to do. And I’ve seen that across other teams as well. If people come to me with things and say, this isn’t urgent, please feel free to put this off until you have the capacity to take it back on. And I think that’s something that our teams are cognizant of and try to be mindful of when making asks for extra things.
Humanity United has a Values-Driven Culture. Ayan’s favorite value is joy while Lara is partial to curiosity.
Ayan: And I do see from being here for the last few months, I do hear us talk about our values and living into and working into our values often. And to me, the value that stood out the most was the value of joy. And I think that’s something that coming back from a week-long retreat with most of our staff the last week, that’s something that I see all the time when we’re together and engaging with one another.
Lara: Curiosity, so a genuine curiosity and listening. So I’ve seen in other organizations and other workplaces, when there’s something that someone doesn’t want to hear, it can put walls up very easily. And yet, what I’ve experienced personally, is that in bringing things up, especially related to things really like diversity, equity inclusion, that there is a genuine curiosity as a starting point to listen, right?
At its heart, HU is a Learning Organization. Ryan, Mia and Lara address that.
Srik: And then, the other journey we’ve been on is one as a learning organization. We’ve gone from reporting on dashboards to the board once a year to really centering our learning agenda as an organization.
So, for the last two years, we’ve had this annual meeting where each of our teams, including our operations team, comes together and talks about what they’ve learned– some of the successes, some of the challenges, failures, and how they really see the pathway going forward.
Lara: But each team has a time slot in which they share what they’ve learned. But then there’s also other activities and other ways of engaging that then facilitate, with the goal of again that cross learning.
Because it’s not meant to be knowledge sharing, it’s meant to be learning, and so needing that interaction so people to brainstorm and see how their work intersects and see where there might be opportunities to collaborate down the line.
Ryan: And to the extent that we’ve actually really made progress on this, we now tell ourselves that learning should serve ourselves, our teams, and our partners more than it should serve the sole purpose of reporting impact to the board. And that’s really, in my mind, opened the aperture for what learning looks like internally.
We are a lot more flexible, a lot more nimble, and we do learning in so many different ways. And part of that actually recognizes that within our teams, we each as individuals learn in very different ways. And even down to when we do the all-staff learning loop, the ways that people have fidget toys and stuff on their tables, recognizing that some people learn through experience rather than reading, that really we’ve gotten so flexible with how learning happens that we’ve started to live into our value of curiosity. And ultimately, I’ve just found that so amazing as a learning organization. We basically do nothing else but learn at HU, and everyone’s really empowered to pursue learning. And a lot of that actually includes the professional development allowances we get, the fact that we’re supported to travel, to go to conferences, and return that learning back to the system, and even the ways that we engage our partners.
When we do strategy processes and we’re doing our work over the course of the year, we really are focused on shared learning. And even in our grant-making, we don’t focus on outcomes planning worksheets or like very specific monitoring evaluation rubrics anymore. We really focus on our learning questions and the things that we’re learning together. And that shift and kind of the power dynamic of how learning operates is probably one of the biggest achievements I’ve noticed over my tenure at HU, is that as a learning organization where learning is really at the center of everything we do, we’ve really started to push down into our system. Like who are we actually serving with our learning? And that’s something I think not every philanthropy has been able to accomplish.
And in fact, when we engage our board, we tend to focus on the learning questions we share. And with several of our board members actually also serving on the boards of our sister organizations across The Omidyar Group because of course we’re in a constellation of The Omidyar Group, they’re able to actually surface learning that’s happening at the other organizations within our network to be able to bring some of those different dynamics and learnings to HU as well.
Mia: Speaking for myself personally, I’m on the earlier side of my career. And so having the opportunity to learn from so many great people, not only on about philanthropy and things like that, but also having the opportunity from my manager to learn new aspects of my work on the people team, on the HR team.
And it’s stepping into new projects and being part of different working groups that are cross-cutting across the organization. So that learning aspect has been really big for me in my role here.
A final thought from each of our participants: Roxanna on Collaboration, Tedria on work-life balance, Ayan discusses psychological safety, Ryan tackles remote communications, and Lara on shared humanity.
Roxana: I was going to say that another way in which I noticed that HU has been working towards increasing collaboration is every team tends to have like weekly meetings, where they check in with each other. And sometimes these meetings are open for the other teams to join if they have time and it’s
a way for them to kind of find out what this other team is doing and if there’s any points in which they would like to collaborate or help each other out.
Tedria: All throughout my career, I’ve always tried to obtain a work-life balance, almost to the point where it just sounded cliche and I never thought that I would figure it out. I can now say working at HU that I’ve been able to obtain that just because there’s an enormous amount of support internally to take care of ourselves
Ayan: But I can talk about my personal experience. I think for me, I haven’t always felt safe or comfortable bringing my full self to work. And I don’t think I ever will be 100% comfortable safe bringing, I don’t think anybody should be expected to.
But I do feel like I can be myself in this environment and that I can talk about my own culture, my own background, my own religious practices and like in the workplace and not feel judged or like I’m making others uncomfortable just being myself
Ryan: So we definitely noticed that that was something that was happening at HU like in other organizations. And we started actually more proactively communicating internally.
So now, once a week, our leadership team sends out an update to the entire staff, which is the happenings across the organization. A bunch of our different teams actually now send out their own newsletters as well, just updates and such. And I will say that we have a great number of working groups at HU.
And I find like those cross-cutting conversations and the information that flows by just having a colleague on your team who happens to be on a working group with a bunch of members of a different team has been really
Lara: And it’s the practice of being a good human being and being a good human being to others just at the most basic level where, sure, things can be tense right? We’re human. But there’s just this recognition of our individual humanity and our cared humanity that kind of underpin everything from the ground up and then the top down. And so it seems simple on its face, but it’s not.
I want to thank all those who participated in this piece: Lara Powers, Tedria Hampton, Roxana Perez, Ayan Ahmed, Mia Aeschliman and Ryan Heman
To learn more about the organization go to humanityunited.org or visit [email protected] and listen to my earlier interview with Srik Gopal, the Managing Partner of Humanity United.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year. Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.