Create happiness in your organization through failure, change and culture

Meet with funders, manage staff, create strong, connected relationships with board members and now you want me to embrace happiness at work? Yes, because we have it backwards. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, happiness is the precursor to success and essential to productivity.

This is contrary to conventional thinking, but Achor’s extensive research has proven it to be true under no uncertain terms. It is too difficult for unhappy employees to find motivation within themselves that doesn’t exist. So, who has greater potential for the happiness advantage than the nonprofit sector? We are under-resourced and overextended yet have the constant presence of a higher calling from which we can draw happiness.

Developing happiness at work

The CausePlanet team invited me to weigh in on the Page to Practicebook summary of Achor’s book, which gives some compelling rationale and practices for developing the ability to be happy. The author provides data supporting ways individuals can acquire happiness at work. Individuals taking on these habits is part of the equation, while the other part involves workplaces creating happiness practices. As Shawn Achor suggests, organizations have a role to play, especially human resource departments and managers.

Since the early 1990s research and writing on positive psychology has emerged. The idea behind this theory is that like leadership, happiness can be developed. Nonprofit organizations, even as overtaxed as the industry is, can implement approaches that help develop organizational happiness.

Learning from failures and risk taking

One of the practices suggested by Achor is to learn from failures. Human resource practices that encourage risk taking are key to not only endorsing failures, but also reinforcing good things can come from them. In one nonprofit organization, clients served were also those who received government funding. One day a compassionate receptionist suggested maybe some clients could afford to pay some amount, and the organization should strive to increase the client base. There was hesitation among the board and senior leadership that perhaps there weren’t enough staff and other resources to accommodate this idea, but a pilot plan was implemented and now the organization is funded with private pay clients who contribute 30% of the revenue generated. See an excellent related article featuring Jason Saul on tapping often undiscovered donors called “Point of Impact” by Paul Lagasse in Advancing Philanthropy. Also see the Page to Practicebook summary of Saul’s book The End of Fundraising: Raise More Money by Selling your Impact. Organizations that have some methods to encourage ideas and processes for implementing those ideas support the movement toward happiness by giving employees the chance to create and strive.

Change management

Change management is another area human resources can tap to create an environment of happiness. Change management involves creating communication systems that explain the reasons for change as well as recognizing change affects employees in very different ways. Employee sessions to discuss the change and the expected benefits of change can help staff feel more in control of their tasks. Achor suggests creative recognition approaches are part of the happiness culture. One nonprofit organization built in milestones on a large technology conversion. Those milestones meant taking the time to stop and communicate where in the conversion process they were and to give recognition to the staff member who had adapted the new technology in the most creative way.


Human resources is usually the gatekeeper of culture. Creating culture that encourages happiness practices can be found in the many nonprofits that are actively supporting wellness programs. One nonprofit committed to a Wednesday walk that invited everyone to walk, rain or shine, a couple of miles at lunch. Over the last several years, the walk has become a tradition among staff and a casual forum for bouncing ideas off colleagues or talking about issues outside the confines of the work walls. Another organization has a certified yoga teacher on staff. That staff member leads her coworkers in twice-weekly yoga classes.

Shawn Achor suggests we don’t become happy when we are successful, but happiness is the step toward success. Likewise, none of these suggested human resource activities are end goals: they’re just stops along the way to celebrate our work and the contributions those in the sector make each day.

See also:

Fired Up or Burned Out

Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide

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