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Everything Created Must First Be Imagined

I recently guest authored a blog post for the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, and since it reflects some of my favorite moments of learning in the last year, I'm sharing it here too!

Deep gratitude for:

I’ve spent the last year voyaging – at least metaphorically – with organizations that have re-thought important assumptions many of us bring to nonprofit structure and management. It’s been a hopeful and inspiring journey. As many of us wrestle with what seem like intractable social problems and our own ability to answer them, who wouldn’t be heartened to know that there are groups that are succeeding at doing things very differently?

The common theme in these organizations is how they’re making decisions – what we understand as governance, although in most cases they are expanding our typical picture of governance (not just something that happens in the boardroom!). They started from frustrations many of us share and used wider access to decision-making to answer them.

Some common challenges in the nonprofit context are below, along with a description of how that difference shows up in the approach these organizations took. In some cases, it’s possible to access more substantive information about the organization’s ideas (I’ve included some representative links) and in other cases stories were shared by staff in a presentation or discussion without additional reference material. None of these groups is perfect, nor does the information below reflect the richness of their choices and contexts. However, they help us recognize unnecessary boundaries in our own thinking. What could happen if we go beyond them?

  • Leadership Burnout: Nonprofit Executive Directors often struggle with poor work-life balance. In addition to sheer overwork, they’re burdened with hopes and projections that so many of us place on anyone in the leadership role – waiting for and wanting a hero, feeling victimized when things don’t work. Distributing decision-making can cultivate a culture of collective responsibility for success as well as failure. It also relieves any one individual from assuming complete responsibility, freeing them to make more balanced choices. In the case of RVC in Seattle, they moved into a model with four directors, and pushed many more decisions to departments (read more here). They coach others in making decisions and relax, knowing those closest to problems generally have the best ideas for fixing them.

  • Transition and Succession Planning: Leadership becomes a particularly important question when the current executive is departing. Instead of trying to find the one best next leader, some organizations have decided that it’s more sustainable to shift towards more distributed decision-making or worker governance (following some trends in small businesses). 350 PDX is one example. As their leader was exiting, the staff expressed their interest in self-management to the board, which was supportive. Over time, and with significant effort, a committee of board, staff, and volunteers developed shared values, job descriptions, and policies for their new operating system. Staff are now confident managing ongoing evolution, which mirrors the evolving reality of the organization.

  • Maintaining an Engaged, Well-Functioning Board: Boards are, in themselves, a way of distributing power. However, social distance between the community and board members can mean that the board is either disengaged or not prepared to make strategic decisions. Instead of placing ultimate power in the board, some organizations have created innovative ways to meet their needs (including their legal needs) for accountability, care, and support. The Sustainable Economy Law Center’s board has delegated strategic decision-making to the organized structure of workers – always with the possibility of taking back control if they feel the mission isn’t being served. In the meantime, four external individuals are designated as “owls,” with particular attention to legal issues, financial issues, governance, and mission. Their job is to identify and surface any worrisome trends and make sure they are resolved.

  • Professional Growth: Creating meaningful career pathways and opportunities for ongoing learning can be difficult for nonprofits, particularly those with limited staff sizes. Distributed leadership comes with a value on upskilling and a more fluid understanding of roles. One person may be responsible for donor communication, one aspect of program delivery, and procurement this year, but grow into more financial responsibilities in the future. This allows employees to organically orient towards growth that both matches their interest and supports the organization. Systems for staff supervision can also be re-imagined. CompassPoint has created “Practice Partners” – staff trained and interested in mentoring. Each employee is matched through two-way choice with a practice partner who can help guide and inspire development, without tying it to movement on a career ladder.

Sound intriguing? The good news is that moving away from limiting assumptions doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Organizations can pilot ideas that make the most sense – for example, testing new methods for decisions that are transparent, efficient, and involve everyone. They can also shore up foundations in preparation for more significant change. They can discuss the way that power currently flows in their organizations and build a shared understanding of what values they want to live out in the future. They can also build capacity and mechanisms for rich and regular feedback and conflict resolution – critical for any of these possibilities to take root.

They can also locate support! Most of these organizations used consultants to contribute expertise, serve as a neutral facilitator and process designer, and/or project-manage some of the additional work of change - leaning on interdependencies and relationships to move forward. Being part of these networks has introduced me to many amazing people and practitioners. I'm happy to talk with you about what I do, and the many resources for organizations looking to step into their own best possibilities.


hands framing a section of chicken wire and the title text
Graphic courtesy of Justseeds.org

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