What the Nonprofit Sector Can Learn from the Occupy Movement? Direct Democracy as Governance

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Last year, the Occupy movement successfully ushered in a long awaited public and political dialogue about structural economic inequality. That accomplishment—where others had tried and failed—may have emerged directly from how Occupy handled themselves as a movement, using a transparency and inclusiveness that many derided at first. The Occupy movement’s inclusive methods may not have been perfect but they worked and are undeniably instructive to the rest of us working to make a more just and equitable economy/world/community. Here, then, is a reflection from an expert on governance with a discussion of what might be learned.

Subscribe now to NPQ’s print magazine to read “General Assembly,” a chapter from Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, by Writers of the 99%.


Even when the Occupy Movement was in full swing last fall and in the news on a daily basis, many in the nonprofit sector ignored the movement, treating it as something that had little to do with the work at hand. Although the mainstream media acknowledges the impact the Occupy Movement has had on the national dialogue about economic inequality and capitalism, the nonprofit community has missed opportunities to consider how innovative movement practices might be applicable to their work. Moreover, given that much of the sector fundamentally deals with the consequences of this country’s economic inequality, the Occupy Movement offers nonprofits new opportunities to increase their impact, while also challenging the status quo of nonprofit practice.

Even now, I can hear some of you saying, “but it wouldn’t stand the test of time” or “it can’t work in a professional setting” but I would suggest that you suspend those barrier erecting thoughts for a bit and just consider how these ideas and methods might be integrated into your governance systems – and by governance, I am not simply referring to your board.

One exciting aspect of the movement that warrants significant consideration by nonprofits is the innovative governance and decision-making structure of the movement’s General Assembly. Described in the recently published Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America[i] as “one of the defining experiences of the movement,” the General Assembly structure and process offers the sector a valuable methodology to consider. As a “horizontal, leaderless, consensus-based open meeting which focuses on decisions that affect the whole group,”[ii] the General Assembly structure provides a valuable illustration of how governance decisions can build ownership, community engagement, and activism by using a radically different methodology than the typical nonprofit structure.

Contrary to the typical board governance model where a small group holds all the governance and decision-making power within the structure of a board, in the General Assembly model governance decisions are made by hundreds and often thousands of people working together over the course of several hours to make decisions about future strategy, political positions, actions, and structures of the local occupation. As described in Occupying Wall Street, it is based on a set of highly structured procedures that result in collective agreement or modified consensus. A fundamental component of the Occupy movement’s decision-making design is the formation of a large number of working groups, which generate and submit proposals to the General Assembly for consensus decision-making.

The success of this methodology challenges several foundational principles of normative nonprofit governance. The General Assembly model counters a fundamental principle embraced by most nonprofits—that is, that a hierarchy or small group is necessary for effective governance and leadership. It also challenges the practice of insulated governance—that is, the typical practice of boards doing most of their work behind closed doors. The Occupy movement has reinvented the prevailing concepts of “transparency” and “inclusion” by engaging in 100 percent transparent practices. Through the use of their “real-time” website—which announces upcoming General Assembly and working group meetings, presents live streaming video of the Assembly meetings, and engages in a host of live social media messaging—the Occupy movement continually engages new people in the shared decision-making process.[iii]

The movement also introduces the practice of “direct democracy,” a process in which all involved are engaged directly in the decision-making process rather than through designated or elected representatives who may or may not have genuine accountability to their constituency. According to the Occupy movement, direct democracy is a practice that ensures that “everyone is empowered and heard.”[iv] In contrast, most nonprofits have not considered using representational models, but rather follow the traditional models of self-selected or “self-perpetuating” boards. Unfortunately, even “representational boards” often have few accountability mechanisms to ensure two-way engagement and mutual accountability with their constituencies.

The Occupy movement also challenges the traditional model of nonprofit leadership, which holds that leadership is most effective if it is embodied in one individual (such as the executive director or board chair) or in a small group of experts such as a board with the power to make decisions on behalf of the organization. Instead, the movement uses a power-sharing governance model, drawing on principles similar to those found in the “community engagement governance”™[v] framework (see previous NPQ articles), in which power is redistributed among key stakeholders.

What Are the Implications for Nonprofit Governance?

The effectiveness of the General Assembly, its accompanying working group structure, and ultimately the Occupy movement in general, challenges the nonprofit sector to consider alternative approaches to governance—approaches that open up the boundaries around the isolated structure of the board for greater impact. Using a highly structured process, large groups of people who will be affected by group decisions can effectively make high quality and effective governance decisions. They can successfully address key community and political needs and issues while concurrently building community ownership, increasing support (including funding) and community/national impact. Shared leadership structures offer opportunities for the development of new and more diverse leadership, as well as for creative problem solving. In addition, it’s clear that the extensive use of social media by the Occupy movement has created a level of governance transparency that is unprecedented in the nonprofit sector. If nonprofits were to use many of these strategies, the subsequent open boundaries would create new and exciting opportunities for increased community participation, democracy, and impact.

The Occupy movement’s “direct democracy” philosophy and innovative, transparent governance practices may feel uncomfortable, risky, or even threatening to some in the nonprofit sector. But its success and future possibilities offer nonprofits powerful practices that could be qualitatively different from anything we have seen before in the sector. The Occupy Movement says, “We are the 99 percent and we are more powerful than they’ll ever be.” What if nonprofits working on other critical efforts could also build this power?

          [i] Writers of the 99%, Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. New York: OR Books, 2011.

[ii] Occupy! Your Guide to the International Occupation Movement of 2011.

[iii] Websites of Occupy Wall Street (www.occupywallst.org) , Occupy Boston (www.occupyboston.com) , and Occupy Oakland (www.occupyoakland.org), 2012.

[iv] Sarah van Gelder & staff of Yes! Magazine. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2011.

[v] Freiwirth, Judy. “Community-Engagement Governance: Systems-Wide Governance in Action”. The Nonprofit Quarterly, Spring, 2011.

  • Loretta Jett Haddad

    I usually make no comment of any sort about untruthful or misleading articles, but I simply cannot abide this article. I am repulsed by NPQ’s opinion that Occupy Wall Street’s model is worthy of emulation in the nonprofit sector. I have worked ethically, responsibly, creatively and successfully in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors for several decades. In no instance would I want to join a personal, professional, or organizational group whose membership openly squats on other people’s rights, defecates on other people’s property, and commits criminal acts of violence. How many of its members does NPQ want to hire today as their corporate spokesperson, public relations manager, etc., because these are desirable employee qualities? Is OWS movement an example of democracy – no, of anarchy – yes. Please republish the article without revisionist history if you have the capacity to do so.

  • Leah Camhi

    Interesting to think about applying the OWS general assembly model to a non-profit organization. It could have huge (i.e. positive/inclusive) implications for the overall governance structure as well as to the populations we serve. Thoughtful article, thanks!

  • michael

    While the author tries to paint this type of governance as something new, it is as old as humanity itself. As anyone with a smidgen of history understands, the Occupy General Assemblies are eerily similar to the old [I]’Worker Councils[/I] in post-war socialist countries. While the Councils were launched with the best of intentions, those efforts were manipulated to become power bases for the aspirations of individuals….or else they were easily co-opted by the existing power structure.

    As a method of governance it is no method of governance at all….it is just chaos…and chaos breeds some of the worst social movements.

  • michael

    By the way, if you want to see how this ‘[B]genuine accountability'[/B] [I](author’s words, not mine)[/I] is working out, the Occupy in NYC is out of cash….and Occupiers are raising a furious internal discussion about [LINK=http://www.nycga.net/2012/03/19/accounting-discussion/comment-page-1/]Where the H*!% did all the money go[/LINK]? ….eeirly similar to the questions being asked at[LINK=http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-23/mf-global-s-corzine-ordered-funds-moved-to-jpmorgan-memo-says.html] IMF Global[/LINK]

  • Bob


    breathe. I know you must have been watching a lot of mainstream media, so your brain is probably highly indoctrinated.. Its ok. You sound like you are a hard working person, which is great, but for you to come in here and label the occupy movement, which is such a vague idea in the first place, is really pathetic. “Whose membership openly squats on other people’s rights,” are you talking about when people occupy public places? The few public places we have left?… And maybe if people cause some “destruction” or interruption in your day, wooptie doo. Some of these people have been ripped away all of their rights. People that have been failed by the system, and that are struggling.. And then there are also intellectuals there that are aware of how FUCKED we are, college professors, scientist, philosophers, who feel the responsibility to make a change in the system.. These aren’t just kids who don’t want to work, stop watching the news and go out and see for yourself that these are real people, who have real problems, and who are starting to figure out the source of the problem. I am not saying that is Wall Street, because the core idea of the occupy movement is about standing up and speaking your voice. THAT is what has spread across the world. Even in my local town here in Nebraska we passed a law to build a youth center this year, a law that has been declined for 20 years in a row. We had inspiration… “Commits criminal acts of violence,” o jesus.. Shame on you. Are you serious? Do you know how much violence is in our country everyday? People die in the united states everyday. People get raped in the US. So why if someone gets raped in the same neighborhood as an “occupy movement’ that the whole movement is to blame? We already know the crime is there. It’s kind of like all those bishops and priests that have been molesting little boys FOR YEARS, committing crimes at a way higher scale, but we don’t condemn all of christianity for this, do we? No. But why with the occupy movement, if some idiot burns a flag in Oakland, why do people get blamed in Maine? What you don’t understand is that all these occupations have local issues… So stop watching CNN or listening to NPR, and actually get there and see for yourself.

    All this article was saying is that organizations with leaders, and people that have too much power, fail. That is what our country is showing, and other countries. You need consensus, but that would never work on a national scale. So thats when anarchy comes in. And HEY! if you ever read a book, then you would know that anarchy isn’t just people running around, smashing things. I don’t know how badly you have been brainwashed, but anarchy is a way of life, a political philosophy. It means to govern yourself. Which is what is eventually going to happen..

    Animals have been around for so MUCH longer than us..

    Humans have been around for a split second compared to the rest of the world: plants, animals, etc…
    We are already on our way out. We live in a world that can’t sustain itself. I think its pretty well known that humans won’t be around in a thousand years or so… It all adds up. But why have animals been able to sustain themselves for so long? They govern themselves. Its primal. Its what we will be back to. Not in our life time, but eventually.

  • Caroline Oliver

    Thank you very much for this thought-provoking article. John Carver suggested in his book Boards That Make a Difference that the very first thing nonprofit boards should do is to truly distiinguish who are their equivalent of for-profit organization owners and then continuually link with them.

    That link could look like handing power back to the owners (as in the Occupy movement) or it could look like connecting with owners throughout the year whether in person, through research or purely attitudiinally. I would love to see every nonprofit board spell out who its legal and moral owners are and how they connect the board’s authority to their owners’ superior authority.

  • Judy Freiwirth

    Thanks for all your comments. This is a provocative article and it’s great to have responses. Yes, there are elements of the Occupy Movement’s governance practices that have been used quite successfully by previous social movements, particularly making strategic decisions with large groups of stakeholders. Some of these movements go back to the 1960’s, such as the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, women’s, and solidarity movements. Also thre are numerous nonpofits and networks who are successfully making governance decisions with large groups of consituents and community members through using the Communtiy-Engagement Governance framework (see previous NPQ articles). The point of the article is to help nonprofits look at alternative governance aproaches and consider elements that may be adaptable to their missions and organizational issues.