Why Every Nonprofit Needs a Chief Wisdom Officer

Dan Pink was right. In A Whole New Mind, he said that we have exited the Information Age. In that rather brief era, we all thought we could manage information as we were creating new information. But it got out of control. Too much new information was being created, and even within nonprofits, the job of managing information just became overwhelming. Computers kept up with some, but we still needed to locate information, whether it was data on how effective we were, or information on clients or students, or even managing databases. And, as Mr. Pink indicated, work that required managing information or creating new information, was just too easy to outsource. First to outsourced to smaller companies, then to Asia.

Where I differ from A Whole New Mind is in the question of what the new era we are entering really is. The book suggests that we are going into the Conceptual Era. I suggestthat the need is to create a Wisdom Era. And who better to lead that charge than nonprofits.

Here’s why a Wisdom Era is needed: Throughout the past decades, if not centuries, society has moved forward in giant steps. Science moved forward long before we humans were ready to deal with ethical implications. Take nuclear energy, for example. Nuclear physicists developed the tools with which to create or destroy. Yet, we are still wrestling with the ethical considerations of how that development should be used. Same with organ transplants. While they save countless lives, the technology to perform transplants was in place long before we addressed the question of when a donor is actually dead.

Putting it simply, we have more than enough information [or as Ecclesiastes states, “there is no end to the writing of books”]. But the wisdom that guides our use of information is sorely lacking. To give credit where it is due, I am not the first person to suggest a Chief Wisdom Officer position for companies. DaVita, a corporation that deals with treatment and management of kidney disease, has such a position. My idea differs somewhat from that of DaVita, and applies it to the nonprofit setting.

What is the wisdom needed for today’s nonprofit [and world]? It consists of a few components:

  1. Perspective – Knowledge and information doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is contextual. We need to put information, data, inventions and innovations in their proper context in order to know what is important and why. Perspective also helps us to remember that we are living in one moment in time. What looks critically important now may, or may not, be important down the road. And the old knowledge that we thought was outdated? It may withstand the test of time.
  2. Priorities – Closely tied to perspective is the very human task of setting priorities. It takes wisdom to decide what takes precedence. No algorithm can replace our wisdom.
  3. Ethics – Nothing we do is ethically neutral. A Chief Wisdom Officer is not a czar of ethics. S/he is the person who would remind us to ask the right questions so that, as we go down a certain path, we are cognizant of the dilemmas we might be creating as we build.
  4. Humor – The Dalai Lama has this one all figured out. Laughter and a smile isn’t a distraction, it is part of wisdom. After all, aren’t nonprofits especially, concerned with human happiness?

Does your nonprofit [or school, or hospital, or police department, etc.] have a Chief Wisdom Officer? Isn’t it about time?


One response

  1. Miriam Brosseau | Reply

    I love this. And I especially love that you included “humor” as a necessary element of wisdom – gorgeous.

    At the same time, I’m a bit irked by the premise of this post. I was recently in a Twitter conversation about the position of a “chief culture officer.” It also sounded great, but I had the same critique: isn’t that, ideally, a position that should be “held” by everyone in the organization?

    One of the brilliant things about this whatever-age we live in is that information/knowledge isn’t sequestered into various compartments, available only to those with the right title or credentials. It’s accessible. It’s linked. So I’m wary of awarding any one individual the title of chief wisdom officer (though I definitely want to BE that at some point for the sheer cool-factor of it), or chief culture officer, because I believe we each need a little bit of that inside all of us to function as mature, social organizations.


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