Horizontal structures give employees much more voice than the traditional hierarchy of decision-making by the board of directors, Executive Director and senior managers. There are many models of governance to consider, and many benefits if you find one that fits your organization. Four models are profiled below.
Success stories of flattening nonprofit organizations report that newly empowered employees step into greater investment in the organization and its mission.
TWO IMPORTANT CAVEATS
Flatter organizational structures involve more time in meetings for staff. Too many meetings can be a factor in burnout.
For organizers in particular, time in meetings focused on running the organization is time away from fieldwork. Those whose job is to develop grassroots leadership shouldn’t be too preoccupied by operational systems, fundraising, finances or internal conflict.
Of the 4 models below, the one that most emphasizes minimizing extra meeting time is sociocracy.
‘Everyone-decides-everything’ structurelessness is not only inefficient, but it sometimes leads to unintentional concentration of power. Unaccountable authority may gradually accrue to longer-term staff who have put in the most time on organizational matters, and/or those with the most formal education on financial management or the mission, and/or those with dominant social identities, such as white professional-middle-class men.
All flatter structures must have clear systems of delegation of authority over particular decisions, channels for input into major decisions, and accountability for completed and uncompleted responsibilities.
Worker self-directed nonprofits
In the worker self-directed nonprofit model, typically all employees have an equal say in major decisions through a democratic process, as well as having distinct job descriptions and limited decision-making authority in their sphere. Management and leadership roles may exist, but sometimes individuals can be voted in and out of them by the workers.
Some worker-directed nonprofits use the MOCHA Model for clarifying individuals’ roles and responsibilities as the Manager, Owner, Consulted, Helper or Approver of a given project. A similar open-source tool is DARCcI.
“The staff in our organizations often have capabilities beyond what’s in their job description. They’ve developed skills during different times in their careers or have years of lived experience and practice. Tapping into these skills and expertise ultimately makes our work better. Just as the richness of a harmony multiplies with each extra note, our work is strengthened by multiple, differing voices. Building a structure that honors those voices, and moves the work forward, while building a strong culture of mutual support and accountability is the fun part.”
– Resist, a funder that became a worker coop
Sociocracy, AKA dynamic governance
Circles of responsibility are the heart of the egalitarian system called dynamic governance or sociocracy. Small teams have areas of responsibility and accountability, in effect working as collectives. Volunteers can be incorporated into circles along with paid staff. The management team is a circle made up of representatives from every team, with regular two-way communication like spokes of a wheel.
Tips for dynamic governance in nonprofits, including a webinar and how-to pdfs, can be found on the Sociocracy for All website.
Youth Power Coalition converted to sociocracy to empower young people to take leadership roles.
“Many spaces I’ve been in don’t use sociocracy. As a result, I had gotten used to having people talk over me and started to feel like my ideas weren’t good enough. After joining YPC and being introduced to sociocratic customs such as consent rounds and co-creation practices, I began to feel like I was being heard and valued. As a leader, I learned how to listen more and when to make space for others to share. This has made me more empathetic in the work that I do…
“[Regarding] sociocracy in general- I think personally it’s the most optimal way to run a nonprofit [because it] balances equality and efficiency. Everyone’s voices are heard, and it’s an effective structure of an organization… In order to build the youth leaders, sociocracy is the best way to go!” – Carline Boston, YPC Youth Executive Director and high school senior
Limited expansions of management authority, AKA distributed leadership
Short of the major reorganizations of governance above, nonprofits can increase non-management employees’ authority and official voice in incremental ways. For example, non-management staff can elect representatives to board and/or the senior management team; and job descriptions can be reconfigured to spread out management over operational areas. Proponents say that the benefits include more innovation, more diverse spokespeople for the organization, and ultimately better decisions and greater impact
A good source to learn about distributed leadership, in which some decision-making authority is pushed down below the director level, is the Movement Building Project’s (MBP’s) report Structuring Leadership: Alternative Models for Distributing Power and Decision-Making in Nonprofit Organizations. Distributed leadership models, they write, depend on several foundations: high levels of trust, patient investment in learning, buy-in from staff, systematic sharing of information, and clear roles—and a willingness of executives to relinquish control. Without all of those, problems arise.
One organization profiled in the MBP report is a community organizing group, Make the Road New York, whose multiple directors involve the 100 employees in decision-making. Some staff come from the communities they organize, and there’s a value of listening to those closest to the ground. A participatory process with a staff-led personnel committee tackled burnout, cutting some job descriptions to a doable scale. Ironically, though, the extra meetings added to some staff’s feelings of burnout, and so did internal conflicts and power struggles. “If there is not a clear driver, it can slow things down and there can be a way that everyone lets themselves not meet the deadlines,” one interviewee said.
A variation on distributed leadership model was implemented at the Ranier Valley Corps when Nonprofit AF blogger Vu Le was the director. They call it Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL) because staff with authority over one area are required to get advice before finalizing a decision.
At Compasspoint, a nonprofit support center, a committee called the Equity Panel proposed that all jobs be collapsed into just four tiers, down from 6. They reviewed each staff person’s contributions to the organization, and added some management-like responsibilities to certain job descriptions; some were promoted. The resulting compensation increases for the lowest paid staff narrowed their pay ratio from 5:1 down to 3:1.
“One of the biggest things that increased job satisfaction was more channels for feedback. Listening to those closest to the work is valuable, because their perspectives are gifts that lead to better solutions.” – Compasspoint
“Management can trump our decisions but they don’t. It is a very collaborative environment, management is genuinely influenceable and we have a sharing atmosphere.” – Compasspoint
“At Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), we have 24 ‘circles’ (working groups) and, within each circle, anywhere between 2 and 15 roles… An individual’s workflow, therefore, is made up of many different roles rather than being defined by a fixed job description.”
“One of their goals is to cultivate an environment where each staff member does (mostly) the work they love the most. To accomplish this, they reassess tasks every 6 months. They put up a big chart that lists all the things people are doing and then they collaboratively assign things to equitably distribute workloads, try to match staff with the tasks they like the most, and identify areas that might require outsourcing or hiring new staff.”
-Sustainable Law Center,
describing Pangea Legal Service
Collectives with consensus decision-making
Consensus decision-making is a collaborative process in which any stakeholder has the right to veto any decision. When a decision is reached this way, everyone has a sense of ownership in implementing it.
Caveats: Consensus is inherently conservative, as the fallback is the status quo, and innovations can’t proceed until everyone agrees to them. And the time it takes to learn and practice the art of consensus may be incompatible with the pressures of an organizing campaign.
But for small values-based groups with no time limits on their decisions, such as a religious discussion group, consensus can draw a community closer together. And for activists considering tactics with high risk of arrest or violence against them, consensus may be essential to avoid anyone feeling coerced into taking a risk they don’t want to take. Currently, unincorporated activist groups are the most common users of the consensus process. Outside these exceptions, a modified consensus process, in which a single individual or tiny minority can’t block a proposal, tends to be more practical for nonprofits than total consensus.