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Chief Culture Officer | Exploring One of the Newest Nonprofit Careers

Amy Bergen

three women smiling at table with laptop and writing pad

A strong culture is essential for a thriving nonprofit; workplaces with powerful, supportive organizational cultures are more likely to retain employees, meet ambitious performance outcomes, and attract loyal donors. Leadership often sets the example for others to follow, and organizations across the social-impact sector are opening up positions at the executive level for chief culture officers (CCOs) or culture managers.

This unique career path has some aspects in common with human resources—a CCO might oversee staffing, training, team-building, evaluations, and professional development opportunities. But the CCO also nurtures positive relationships with the communities a nonprofit serves, uses data analysis to keep the nonprofit on track to meet its goals, and guides employees through transitional periods. It’s an exciting, ever-changing line of work, ideal for a mid-career social-impact professional interested in an executive leadership role with an innovative twist.

The job description

A CCO often comes on board during periods of organizational growth and change, where a nonprofit may have trouble fine-tuning its culture to adapt to new priorities and strategies. And a fledgling nonprofit might need help defining its culture in the first place. CCOs can enforce behavior norms and expectations that help shape this culture, implementing formal policies if necessary.

Since culture manifests in seemingly small ways—through the behavior an organization rewards, the priorities it uses in hiring and promotion, and the goals it sets for performance—the CCO keeps their eye on the details. They may work with a human resources department to write descriptions of open jobs, create best practices for internal communications, plan a staff professional development event based on new methods in the field, assemble the right team of employees for a new project, and coach supervisors on the best way to deliver feedback—all in the same day.

CCOs work closely with executive staff and board members to make sure the organization’s culture and mission work hand-in-hand. One of a CCO’s most important ongoing tasks is to keep the organizational culture consistent with its stated beliefs and values. If a nonprofit has made a public commitment to diversity and equity, environmental sustainability, or other goals, the CCO may identify areas where the organization could improve on modeling those values within its own walls. Similarly, CCOs look out for ways the organization can adapt to meet the needs of the community it serves, since these needs may change over time.

Building your resume

Like other executive roles, CCO positions typically require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. On-the-job experience, however, is far more important for this role, and most organizations want their CCO to have several years (think five to 10) of leadership success under their belt.

A human resources background is the ideal training for a CCO role; some organizations specifically request HR experience. Not only do you get practice hiring the right staff and mediating conflict, you get a broader sense of how organizational systems can help or hinder growth. Spending time on a hiring or staffing committee (even if you’re not in charge) can give you insight into this process. And any supervisory experience, even outside of human resources, will help you with the interpersonal skills and teamwork focus a CCO needs.

If you’ve worked on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, you already have a valuable CCO skill—CCOs may be asked to lead the charge in equitable staffing and talent development. Grant writing is another skill you can bring on board. Knowing how to communicate missions and values in a way that appeals to donors, and developing a consistent organizational voice, are key aspects of a CCO’s job.

CCO roles are also good fits for the math-minded, since the job requires an understanding of data analysis. As CCOs work with other leaders to plan organizational goals, they’ll need to work toward measurable, data-driven outcomes—anything from retaining team members at competitive salaries to estimating the financial impact of a new initiative.

Hard skills

There are a few "hard skills" you’ll need for the job—organizations want someone who’s been a supervisor in some capacity and led a team towards accomplishing a measurable goal. But the "soft skills" you develop during your career can be just as helpful:

  • Connecting with people from different cultural backgrounds;
  • Understanding how to interpret data and set data-driven outcomes;
  • Adapting and recognizing when processes need to change;
  • Accepting (and delivering) constructive, honest feedback;
  • Collaborating with other organizations on major projects;
  • Identifying and changing any ways your organizational culture is exclusive or perpetuates inequality;
  • Supporting and mentoring junior colleagues.

You can gain these skills, and more like them, through any number of career paths. Each organization is unique, and no two CCOs will face the exact same challenges—since the role is relatively new in the nonprofit sector, it may evolve over the years. But if you love working with people and you’ve got your eye on the C-suite, this job is a great way to help shape an organization and make a lasting positive impact.

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Keep your eyes peeled for culture officer or culture manager job listings on Idealist.org

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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