Five Question Fridays with Susan Dreyfus

Written by Datis Admin

July 18, 2018

Five Question Fridays with Susan Dreyfus

Welcome to the latest installment of ‘Five Question Fridays,’ a one of-a-kind interview series that seeks insight from some of the most respected leaders, experts, and executives in their respected field. Our previous interview featured Sharlyn Lauby, founder of HR Bartender, one of the most-visited and trusted HR blogs on the web. Sharlyn discussed everything from technologies role in HR to her advice for organizations currently hiring for multiple positions.

This week, we are pleased to introduce none other than Susan Dreyfus. Susan is the current CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a national strategic action network that works with thousands of committed social sector leaders to help their organizations more positively impact their communities. Aside from her role at Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, Susan has been recognized for her personal efforts to advancing equity in society through access and opportunity so all people can reach their full potential.

Check out our ‘Five Question Fridays’ interview with Susan Dreyfus below:

Susan, back in 2012 you were hired to be the CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a strategic action network of social sector organizations that reaches thousands of communities across the country. Can you shed some light on some interesting projects your team has been working on lately and how you’ve seen the Alliance change?

I view my role as one of being both a steward and a catalyst of a “century young” organization that has always been a disruptive force in our field and sector. The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities is focused on demonstrating the distinction of our sector through the excellence, distinction and influence of our strategic action network. We are so much more than a membership association and we know we are not for everyone. We look for those forward leaning leaders and organizations who through the unique way they provide their services and supports, their leadership, partnerships, innovative spirit and their commitment to advocacy are critical players in their communities and our country to ensure all people reach their fullest potential. We are less focused on “what” our members do and more focused on “what” they achieve and equipping them with the competencies and capacities they need to be successful in that achievement both individually and collectively. Clearly, the amazing people who work in our field and sector, their talent, excellence and success is our sectors greatest asset which is why we are honored to be partnering with DATIS as a sponsoring organization.

For the Alliance, being a disrupter is both a blessing and a curse! You must be both pragmatic and bold and demonstrate it through the legitimacy of your constantly improving value proposition. The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities is unique in the national association landscape in that respect. We were founded by a group of social sector and public sector leaders on issues of social justice in America with a focus on poverty reduction. So, while our wildly and fabulous diverse network does everything in terms of the programs and services it provides and literally serves all generations from “ twinkle to twilight,” it is with them and through them that we are focused on truly getting underneath root causes with the goals of creating a more preventative health and human services system in our country while demonstrating to our country the imperative of our sector and why everyone needs to care about our sectors health and vitality. For the right people, equipped with the right tools and supports, there can be no greater opportunity to make a lasting difference in people’s lives then working in our sector. It is an exciting time.

Most of my career has been in the public sector having served in local and state government in both Wisconsin and Washington State. I had been the COO of the Alliance in the early 2000’s. When I came back to the Alliance in 2012 following the tragic death of then CEO, Peter Goldberg, it was clear to me that this was a critical time for our sector to demonstrate its best self beyond excellence in service delivery and to show our sectors systems changing power. We all want bigger and faster results and the pace of change and forces is unrelenting.

In creating our new Theory of Change in 2016, we knew we had to move faster and get out over our skis a bit as an organization. It is simply not enough to serve our members well and for them to get good outcomes one by one. Our nation faces both historic challenges and immense opportunities and our focus has been how with and through our unique strategic action network, we incubate, aggregate and accelerate solutions and policies to ensure all people in this country can live their lives to their fullest potential. Our long term outcomes are all through the lens of equity (equal access and opportunity) through health and wellbeing, economic mobility, education success and safety and security. Our strategic action playbook was built with our network and focuses us on intermediate goals that will create the conditions upon which our sector can thrive with a focus on people, their lives and the places where they live.

So what are examples of our work these last few years since I came back to this great organization? What is foundational to us is equipping our members to have the knowledge, networking and solutions they need today in their organizations to solve for their problems and seize their opportunities. That is the pragmatic value of what we do for our members and in the last couple of years we have been able to digitize our entire knowledge center and create a successful networking platform for our members that gives them real time access to one another. We are also constantly nurturing deep partnerships with academia, corporations like DATIS, other national associations, philanthropy and our public-sector partners through the American Public Human Services Assn to equip our members for their success.

However, in addition to the pragmatic value we must provide, our members depend on us to also be aspirational, to be their radar on the trends and issues in our field and sector and with them to be disruptive, lean forward and create the bold new paths forward. With generous funding from the Kresge Foundation we created a strategy framework that we came out with in 2013 for high impact organizations called the Commitments of High Impact Organizations. I believe we truly nailed what it is that gives community based human serving organizations, excellence, distinction and influence in a rapidly changing environment and we align everything we offer our network and our national thought leadership and advocacy through this framework. For instance, high impact organizations have the capacity to innovate so this year we are focused on building innovation muscle through human centered design and innovation engineering principles in 3 areas. Improving health, education success and our seemingly intractable workforce challenges.

Some other very exciting work for us is in the neurosciences with funding from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation to ensure that what we are now learning through neurosciences and a much deeper understanding of the causes and impact of toxic stress and trauma, that we develop and act upon a deeper and more accurate understanding of root causes and what works. Through this work, we call Change in Mind, we are focused on the influence of our network to hard wire this science into practice and policy across fields, sectors and systems with great success. We will be releasing our impressive evaluated results very soon.

The DATIS 2017 Executive Priorities Report found that only 18% of nonprofit Health and Human Services organizations believe their organizations are adequately staffed to face the current demand for their services. Why do you think nonprofit human services organizations are struggling to staff their workforces and keep up with the demand for their services?

Our workforce challenge is not a new challenge and the root causes are multiple and complex. A few of the causes are first that this work is hard and not for the faint of heart but it is also incredibly rewarding when you see people reach their goals, technology is rapidly changing our work, we are increasingly competing with healthcare for our staff and can seldom compete with their salaries and benefits and capping it off, our predominant payer, government, simply does not pay what it truly costs to deliver the outcomes they want us to achieve with quality.

Clearly what we have been doing hasn’t solved the problem so we look forward to the bold and innovative thinking we must use to find new solutions to this chronic challenge and the partnerships that will be required. Our attendees can expect to be challenged to solve for this challenge not just as singular organizations but as a network both through our leverage in the market as well as our advocacy.

We’re excited to be a part of Alliance’s Innovation Design Summits in Tampa, Florida later this year in November, with the theme being ‘Building a 21st-Century Social Sector Workforce.” How did you come up with this theme and what can attendees expect to learn from this Summit?

I mentioned earlier our focus on building innovation capacity in our network and one of our 3 Innovation Design Summits this year is November 15-17 in Tampa that DATIS is generously sponsoring, to work with our network to solve for our growing workforce challenges with a lens on creating greater diversity in our leadership pipelines and what it means to be truly equitable organizations as we solve for this growing problem. We need to get serious about our diversity if we are to have a workforce for a more diverse 21st century America.

You currently sit on the Chair of the Leadership 18, an alliance of CEOs responsible for leading some of the country’s largest charities, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations. How did this alliance come about and what are its primary objectives?

In my role as CEO, I have the honor of traveling the country and seeing the great work of our members first hand. It is truly what motivates me to keep going. One honor I have is to have been elected by my colleagues who are the CEO’s of some of the oldest and largest national human service networks in the country to serve as Chair of Leadership 18. We learn from each other, push one another, provide thought leadership on the pressing issues of our time and when necessary, we advocate together as a network. For instance, our priority now is to ensure the charitable tax deduction is preserved and strengthened. We are at our best when we care for one another and giving of our financial resources to organizations and causes is something we should foster and incentivize as a nation through tax policy. In the end, what is more powerful then neighbor helping neighbor?

You were named by Nonprofit Times in their 2017 ‘Power & Influence’ Top 50 list. How does it feel to receive recognition like this and how to plan to continue your success moving forward?

Humbling and thankful. To be recognized by well-respected leaders in our sector for our team’s hard work with our awesome network to demonstrate the best of the human serving social sector really means a lot to us. Recognition like this keeps us going. The words of Dr Ron Heifetz, the father of Adaptive Leadership who has had a huge influence on me rings increasingly true for this exciting and challenging time. He refers to adaptive challenges as “the productive zone of disequilibrium” and boy do I feel like that describes the world of human services and national associations today as we position ourselves for a future that is very different from the past!

We’d like to thank Susan for her participation and incredible insight. Make sure to follow Susan and the Alliance For Strong Families and Communities on Twitter for more updates. If you’re interested in participating in our interview series, send an email to This DATIS blog may not be shared or repurposed without permission.