August 25, 2021

Why Social Sector is Critical to the Future of Work with Susan Dreyfus

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #54

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Susan Dreyfus, former President and CEO of Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She has had a huge impact in government, the social sector, and the public sector with her work bettering the communities. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Susan sat down with Sam to talk about how to help communities, what executives can be doing to help their workers, and doing what you’re passionate about.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Susan shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “You don’t have success if you don’t dare to take risks.”
  • “Have a head and heart connection.”
  • “It’s about the people.”
  • “Be vulnerable.”
  • “We need to put the love back in the work, whether that’s love for our employees, our mission, or consumers.”


Sam: You’ve had a pretty amazing career, to say the least, given just the background I’ve been able to dig into. I’d love for you to open us up by just sharing your journey. 

Susan: Sure. You know, it’s so funny. If someone had told me as I was growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa, that I would have the career and the opportunities that I’ve had, I would never have believed it.

I’ve just always felt there was a larger hand in my career and the things that followed next, just always to seem to be the right ones. But I also dare to take risks and you don’t have success if you don’t dare to take risks. I don’t think there’s a single job I’ve had that I was ready for that job the day I took it. 

But my career now has been able to span government, county government, chief of staff for county executive, state government, first administrator of children and families for Governor Tommy Thompson in the state of Wisconsin, Republican governor, I’m secretary of the Washington state department of social and health services for a Democrat governor, Governor Christine Gregoire, and also now close to, my goodness sakes, 15 years that I have worked in the social sector. Now, Sam, you’re not going to hear me call this sector, the nonprofit sector, because in Latin, that means no progress. And I refuse to be about no progress. 

The social sector, this vital third sector in our nation, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a national network of community-based human serving organizations across this country. And so having both the social sector, experienced public sector experience, working for a Democrat, working for a Republican, advocating at the federal state and local level, it’s just given me a really unique lens. 

What’s amazing though, it might surprise you and your listeners, but coming through this great pandemic, I have never been more hopeful in my career that the decade of 2020 can really be our moment to really get at the root causes and change some of these systems that sometimes I feel like I’m watching a soap opera. Stuff we were talking about 20 years ago, we keep talking about today, but I’ve been blessed. But I’ve also been willing to take risks and reach further than even I thought I was capable of. 

Sam: I was reading a little bit about your work with the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. And I came across a summit that I believe you all held called Building a 21st Century Social Sector Workforce. Can you tell us more about what building a 21st-century workforce should look like? Or maybe some of the outcomes of that event? 

Susan: Sure. I think first of all, keep in mind that I have a perspective of the public sector and social sector. So for your listeners, that’s the lens that I bring. I really do believe that when we at the Alliance, and again, we just completed a historic, highly strategic merger at the end of last year as I was coming out as CEO for a planned departure that I’ve been planning on since I came to the Alliance almost nine years ago to take on other work that I want to do, we did a merger with the Council on Accreditation. Soon the new name will be launched, but the Alliance as I was CEO no longer exists as it was.

We are now a new entity nationally. I think we’ll have a much bigger impact, but it’s important to know that when the social sector takes this on, of course we’re thinking of our own workforce, but we’re also thinking about our community and how we play our part. Because at the end of the day, if people could break down what is at the essence of human services and America’s, community-based human serving organizations, these beacons of light, I like to call them, is that these organizations build the human capital of America. And so I think we have a very unique insight into the question you’re raising about the future of work. 

I think one of the things that’s going to be really important going forward in the pandemic has put a spotlight on it and that, and even our Arshay Cooper’s documentary, The Most Beautiful Thing that you highlighted in his podcast here a few weeks back brings it out. And that is, we now understand through neuroscience, not through voodoo, but through science, we now understand what toxic stress and trauma does to a developing brain. And we now understand how that translates into every aspect of a person’s life.

So really quickly, your prefrontal cortex, the front part of your brain is what is what triggers these executive function skills. And if you live within a context, whether it’s in your home or in your neighborhood, if you live within a context that is at a high level of stress, you don’t feel safe, you don’t feel that your needs are being met, everything is hard, that steady drip, drip, drip of stress absolutely impacts every aspect of your life. 

We know that it impacts your health, chronic illness and disease and your ability to be successful in work. So one of the things I think is going to be really important to the future of work if we’re truly talking as a nation about equity, equal access and opportunity is how employers give their employees an opportunity to build and exercise these executive function skills, and just to plain talk them the ability to control and sustain attention, set goals, make plans, monitor rules, delay gratification, control impulses, all the soft skills that employers complain that their workforce doesn’t have sit in that prefrontal cortex area. 

So when there’s opportunities that employers create in our sector for their own workforce, but also are creating through the way they provide their programs and services, the opportunities for people to build those skills in normalized age appropriate ways, and exercise them over time, we will have far more equity of access and opportunity for all people in the workforce.

I hope that I know that was long, but I thought it was just an important point to make, but what’s going to be important with equity at the center for the future of work. 

Sam: It feels like there’s a gap in this process of trying to step back and understand where your people come from every day. You know, like even when you watch the news today, there’s so much talk about remote work and when people come back to the office, but now as you know, half of American jobs are in the service sector, most workers don’t get to work from home and in a lot of vulnerable communities, people are maybe coming from, to your point, different experiences and upbringings.

I guess if you were talking to CEOs today or leaders, any advice or anything that you could share?

Susan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, all I can do is give a perspective and I think it’s really three things. I think first it’s to be vulnerable. I have spent, over this past year, some teary times, and my staff actually saw me in tears when we had, company-wide conversations about equity, diversity, inclusion, and with the police unrest earlier last summer and us really starting to see that the inequity of how this pandemic hit our neighbors of color and of promise. 

I know Sam, we talk about vulnerable communities, we’ve got to change our language. These are communities of promise. These are people of promise and we tend to describe so many of our neighbors, especially people in poverty who disproportionately are people of color in negative terminology.

And all it does is it feeds the swamp of despair and hopelessness. I think it’s going to be important to be vulnerable because I have spent time in tears realizing that I have had responsibility for systems that were absolutely complicit in the perpetuation of systemic racism in this nation. And so vulnerability, I think, in the C-suite or any leader is critically important. 

The other one I’d say is to be proximate. For instance, for me, I had no business being a policy leader if I didn’t spend time in the field being close to the work, seeing our employees and the work they did every day out in the human services field, sitting in the court, watching cases go through. So whether you’re in the private for-profit, you’re in the social sector, you’re in government, be proximate to the work, have a head and a heart connection.  That’s critically important. 

And the third one, I think we got from Avedis Donabedian, as crazy as that sounds, the father of the Donabedian triangle, world-renowned that structures data and processes are what created quality.

And he was near the end of his life as he’s being interviewed he’s being asked about this great career he had. He created the Donabedian triangle, the father of quality, and he had the humility to say, I got it wrong. In my quest of thinking data, processes, structures created quality, I took the altruism out of the work and we’ve got to get love back into the work. 

Whether that is love for our employees, love for those that we serve, our consumers, that is critically important. When we’re thinking about the quality and engagement of our workforce, through their lived experience, are they experiencing vulnerability, the proximity of the organization to their lived experience and love? And I think those are the things that will be critically important. 

Sam: I’m hopeful. So many organizations are starting to reflect on processes and initiatives and start to hopefully think about what’s effective and what makes sense. I think COVID taught us that maybe we had outdated technologies in place, or we had outdated systems in place, or maybe we weren’t as connected as we thought we were.

What have you seen work best when companies, organizations, and government work together to tackle some of the issues you’re talking about? 

Susan: Yeah, it’s a great question. I really think that coming out of the pandemic, we really, as a nation, got a lens to how interdependent we are on one another. No matter who we are, what station we have in life, how much we’re earning an hour, no one of us is above the other. We are totally interdependent on one another and we can’t lose sight of that. 

I think that it’s now time for us to think about government, the for-profit sector, and the social sector. We need to stop thinking about how we coordinate at times, but we have got to see and understand how we are really moving from a traditional partnership to a generative one. 

What do I mean by that? I have been hardened by all of the companies and I am not diminishing the importance of this at all, but on the TV hearing about how much food they have donated and how much money they’ve given for meals, and that should continue because we have to meet the emergent needs of our neighbors today. I get it. But I think where we’re missing is, corporate America, from my perspective, sits on something that the government and the social sector desperately needs. And that is the capacities for research and development, the capacities for innovation cycles that are quicker.

We just watched as a nation, our ability to create 10 years of innovation in three months. Well, we got to figure out together, how do we keep that going? How do we not let that stop? Because when we had barriers in the social sector, I was watching these organizations figure out ways under, around, over and through them, but they don’t have the capacity for the long haul to keep that going.

Bringing our data to life, helping us to understand what works best for whom, when, where, why, how? I just think if the for-profit sector could think broader about its commitment to social cause to building the capacity of these organizations that are responsible for all of these systems, I think it could be breathtakingly amazing.

I think it starts in the boardrooms of these companies. I don’t know that in board rooms they necessarily have the right diversity of this perspective sitting there at the table. And I think they need to start thinking about that, but I just would like to see companies have a bigger view of social responsibility beyond meeting the immediate need.

Sam: Absolutely. I had Julie Lythcott-Haims on the podcast a few weeks ago. She just wrote a book, her first book was How to Raise an Adult and then she came out with a book on “how to adult”, and I was talking to her and asked her about millennials and gen Z and the labels that come around it and she made a comment and said, “it’s my generation’s fault. It’s this new generation’s opportunity”. 

And there’s a lot more that came behind that, but I want to kind of ask you to talk for a second to the young people who are listening or the workers on the front lines who aren’t in the boardroom, but are enthusiastic, fired up and excited to continue progress.

What do you say to them?

Susan: I’m trying to think of all the different vantage points that the broad definition of who we’re talking about is that’s pretty broad. I think that first of all, one of the things that is important is to see and understand the larger value of the work you do every day to the consumer.

I started working when I was nine years old for a buck a night from my dad in a Kentucky Fried Chicken store in Marshalltown, Iowa. And I worked for my dad till I was 18 years old. And I think by then I was making three bucks an hour, but I could run the place by then too. And I’ll never forget a homeless man walked in with crumpled up money and put his money down on the table and told my dad he needed a bucket of chicken. And I watched my dad treat him as if he was the king of England, with the utmost dignity and respect. With love. 

When I’m in the grocery store and when we see one another, when we give people the opportunity to serve us, and we say, thank you, and they feel value in the work they do, I think that’s important. And I do think oftentimes companies don’t do enough. And we as employers, whether I don’t care what sector you’re in, don’t do enough to help our employees have a head and a heart connection to the value of their work. 

I think the second thing though, is to make sure that whether it’s just in your daily walk, of seeing other people, literally not just passing them by, but seeing their humanity and seeking opportunities through your company, through your faith community, through a local community-based organization where you have the opportunity to share that with others.

I think it’s all three of those things that I would say to anybody. I don’t think it’s just about your success at work. I think it’s about the fullness of life, but I think it makes you do your best at work too. 

Sam: I feel like you’ve said a few times the importance of having a head and heart connection. I feel like now more than ever, that’s something that organizations should put on the wall and strive for.

Susan: I’ve now gotten to the point when I do, cause I’m taking on a consulting practice now in both social sectors in government, and I’m doing work right now around helping organizations perfect their strategy for real breakthrough results.

And one of the things that’s really important that we don’t do enough of is we create these great vision statements, these mission statements, these value statements we do in every blah, blah, blah, blah, blah years, strategic plan, right? But we’re not crystal clear with absolute clarity of our purpose and our unwavering principles upon which that purpose will be achieved.

And those to me are the enduring. And everything else comes from that. When you nail purpose, and these enduring principles upon which that achievement will happen, you can unleash the power of a workforce with a head and a heart connection to it. But I watched people, they rushed to have a strategic plan and they know what they’re going to do, but they’re not clear.

They’re not clear with clarity what their purpose and what their achievements are going to be and those principles. And then how do you make sure that they’re infused, aligned, and accelerated across every experience your employees have with you that those principles truly are being lived in the organization and in the community and outside of the organization?

Sam: Any techniques or any suggestions? Cause that’s tough. How do you crystallize? 

Susan: Well, I think it absolutely starts with the board and the CEO. You have to live it. It’s gotta be living proof. So when you get to your purpose, take when I was the CEO of the Alliance.

I mean, anybody could have just said, well, that’s a membership association. They’re carrying water for their members. Well, no, we were working hard to create a healthy and equitable society, and we made sure that our theory of change and our theory of action in every aspect of what we were doing was consistent with that. 

And I think CEOs and boards have got to be guardians of the horizon. And it’s just very important to start there. So it’s got to start with a CEO that has that head and heart connection to the larger purpose. But like I said, I still go back to the principals and the beliefs that the organization has that will stand the test of time for alignment.

And then it’s literally, I know this sounds crazy, but I find in my work, it’s just going through the capacity by capacity of an organization. Is this aligned to your performance management system? Not your annual performance review process, but through the entire system of performance management in an organization. Is this aligned to your training? Is this aligned to your hiring? Is this aligned to the customer experience? And how do you know?

Now I’ll tell you some of these engagement surveys I think would have a lot more life to them and importance to them in terms of what we would get back from them, both for our consumers, as well as our employees.

Sam: Sure. Susan, this has been great. I have one final, but albeit very important question. And it’s again, we’ve been talking a lot about the future of work. What is your hope for the future of work?

Susan: I want to make sure that I have an opportunity here to remind your listeners about the importance of this social sector. There are 211,000 of these community-based human serving organizations in the country that provide human service-type programs and services. Their collective spend is over $200 billion, which is the size of the American airline industry.

They are a critical part of the economic engine of this country. And when I think about the future of work, to me, I think about the importance of this sector, the importance of the work we do and how we build the human capital of our nation and how through work, whether we’re for-profit government or we’re a social sector, we’re not just thinking about the work we’ve got to get done, but how we’re creating the future of work through the work we do every day through our employees, as we’ve talked about today, but I worry about people not understanding the larger role, the sector that I just got done representing the social sector, has with an in community and building the human capital of our nation.

Because when that is strong, the future of work will be strong. It’s about the people. And this sector plays a larger role with an in-community than just providing a bunch of programs and services for people “in need” or a failed safety net. We have a much larger role that we play.

Sam: Susan, it has been awesome talking to you. You haven’t just changed some of the words I use, you’ve changed how I think about them. So thank you so much for the work you’ve done and continue to do, and thank you for spending some time with us. 

Susan: I appreciate it. I appreciate what you’re doing to Sam. It’s really important. 

Sam: Thank you. 

Susan: Take care.

Topics Discussed: Social Sector, Social Responsibility, Social Impact, Government, Development, Workforce, Leadership

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle