Studies cited elsewhere in this issue show that for many workers, the primary factor in job satisfaction is not compensation, but participation in decision-making. Yet despite a growing awareness in society of the long-term benefits of participatory systems, most organizations, whether for-profit, nonprofit, or public sector, have hierarchical structures. In a hierarchical system, decision-making authority resides with positions in direct proportion to their place on the organizational chart. So if you’re at the top of a hierarchy as an executive director or senior manager and you want to create a more democratic system, you will have to facilitate the redistribution of some of the power (and responsibility) that comes with your position.
Many nonprofits, especially community-based organizations, have mission statements that speak of participation and inclusiveness in programming. If your governance structure doesn’t reflect these values, are you being true to the mission? Even if you have a board of directors that is representative of your constituents, do your internal policies, procedures, and practices reflect participatory values?
Redistributing power shakes up a system, and as a result it often requires psychological and financial risk-taking. It also takes a fair amount of management skill. Decision-making is a lot easier when power is concentrated in one person or a small group. If power sharing is done patiently and thoughtfully, however, it can have long-lasting and far-reaching benefits by freeing up creative thinking at all levels of the organization. If you believe part of your job as executive director is to create systems that support the personal and professional development of every person in the organization and thereby maximize their contributions to its mission, then you will want to move in the direction of participatory decision-making.
The following scenario illustrates the political and management complexity involved in sharing power.
Your youth-serving organization receives 60 percent of its funding from the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS), via three separate contracts. The largest of these is for a comprehensive program of services to young people referred by the Juvenile Court. The program offers GED classes, job-finding workshops, counseling, and a recreation program, among other services, all of which are squarely within your mission.
You’re entering the final six months of a five-year contract that supports four full-time staff as well as 10 percent of your time and other overhead costs. Although the program has been successful at meeting its objectives and is well-regarded by the DHS staff responsible for it, the newly-appointed Secretary of DHS is changing direction. You’ve just received the contract renewal application, which is due in three weeks, and are distressed to read that the agency has added tight participant monitoring and reporting requirements, with negative consequences for youth who fail to complete the program. You feel strongly that this punitive type of orientation (which the new Secretary is known for) contradicts the values that underlie your mission. However, three of your four senior staff feel that even with the new rules, your organization would serve your constituents far better than any other potential vendor, and that that’s a sufficient rationale for renewal. Your board president is new, and there has been a great deal of turnover on the board over the past year, so the decision has been dumped into your lap.
* Make an executive decision not to apply for renewal of the contract because you are convinced that the new rules would undermine the organization’s core values, and it’s your job to protect those values. You respect the three senior staff members who feel differently, but you don’t think they see the bigger picture the way you do–and you wouldn’t expect them to.
* Set aside a half-day for a senior staff retreat to talk about the contract, with the goal of a consensus decision about how to proceed.
* Lay out all the arguments on both sides to the four program staff, who have been with your organization between two and eight years and are deeply committed to its mission, and ask them to make a collective recommendation to you, in person and in writing, by the end of the week. However, you make no commitment to accept their recommendation.
* Turn the decision about what to do over to the full staff (20 people), devoting the entire agenda at next week’s staff meeting to this matter, with you as facilitator.
Obviously, there are pros and cons to each of these options–and there are many other possibilities. But rather than giving you my opinion of the “right” answer, I am asking for your ideas. The reader whose response, in the twisted opinion of the author, best combines wit and wisdom will receive a $50 prize. Read the prize winning answer….
Are you ready, willing, and able to redistribute power voluntarily in your organization? Take the Spack Power-Sharing Quick Quiz to find out. Please note: if it turns out that power-sharing doesn’t work for you, don’t try to fake it. If your personality and management style make it difficult or impossible for you to share power voluntarily and meaningfully, you are better off being honest about this than attempting to go down the path of participation on false pretenses. An authentic albeit authoritarian leader is better than an inauthentically democratic one.
How open are you to sharing power? Here are a few questions to help you find out:
How much direct contact with your board members do other staff have?
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Do other staff attend and participate in full board or board committee meetings?
How much independent responsibility do program and department heads have for revenue generation and expenditures in their own areas?
3. Totally responsible
Who makes decisions about hiring and firing and staff salaries?
1. I do
2. Small group
3. Large group or whole staff
How are decisions made about taking on new projects or going after new funding?
1. I decide
2. Small group.
3. Large group or whole staff.
Do you consider yourself to be primarily responsible for crafting a vision for your organization?
2. Yes, but in consultation with others
3. No, just facilitate the process
Who is responsible for business/strategic planning in your organization?
1. I am
2. Small group
3. Whole staff
Add up your scores. If you scored 10 or less, you should consider carefully whether a more democratic approach will work for you. You may need to make some dramatic changes in your management style to make genuine participation work. A score of 17-21 means you’re practically there already. Between 11-16, give power-sharing a try. You may find it liberating.