A group of three co-workers standing around a laptop, talking and working together
Image credit: AnnaStills on istock.com

Over the past decade, we have seen a wave of organizations exploring new democratic leadership models. The trend has grown so much that the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy named coleadership and worker-owned models for nonprofits as one of “11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2023.” Similar articles were published by the MacArthur Foundation and the Bridgespan Group in 2021 and 2022, respectively. But could early adopters of these models be offering a glimpse into the future of the nonprofit sector?

To better understand the potentiality of these trends, I interviewed employees of seven organizations with democratic leadership models, most of which describe themselves as worker self-directed nonprofits (WSDNs), to learn how their leadership models work. Each organization had a slightly different structure and a unique story of how they came to their model and why it works for them.

Research Design

This article builds off a more complete series of profiles that has been published through the Nonprofit Democracy Network and the Sustainable Economies Law Center. Each organizational profile explores the following:

  1. A basic outline of the organization including their area of work, location, size (staff, board, and annual budget), and their organizational structure status
  2. A deeper dive into their organizational structure, staffing structure, decision-making structure, and board structure
  3. The story of how and why they became a WSDN. Some of these organizations were founded with the structure and some went through a transition process
  4. The kinds of tools, policies, and practices they have in place that make it possible to function as a WSDN
  5. Challenges they have experienced since becoming a WSDN
  6. Highlights they have experienced since becoming a WSDN
  7. Advice they would give to organizations considering this model

While there is no industry standard definition or certification for a WSDN, some undeniable similarities exist among the organizations that have adopted this title. Each has built a structure unique to the needs of its team and mission, but they share certain qualities and practices that make democratic leadership successful, as detailed below.

Understanding the Cases

 The nonprofits that I surveyed ranged in size. Three were small—ranging from four to six workers—while the other four were midsized, ranging from 14 to 19 staff members. Here are summaries of each of the seven organizations I studied:

This nonprofit—based in Oakland, CA—has a full-time staff of 19 people. They do legal and educational support for community-based projects, this includes developing legal tools that help community groups build sustainable sources of food, housing, land access, energy, and jobs. The organization has been a WSDN since its founding in 2009.

This nonprofit—based in Eugene, OR—has a six-person staff. They support grassroots organizing, particularly in stopping new fossil fuel infrastructure, through legal advocacy and narrative strategies. Breach Collective is a WSDN that is also unionized via the Communication Workers of America. The union, Breach United, was recognized a year after its founding, and a collective bargaining agreement was finalized in January 2023.

Based in Boston, MA, and with a staff of 15 people, Movement Sustainability Commons seeks to support movement organizations by offering various kinds of back-end support—ranging from accounting services to support with conflict resolution. The organization is a fiscally sponsored project of Resist and the Center for Economic Democracy and has operated as a WSDN since its founding in 2020.

Based in Oakland, CA, the organization started as a member-based philanthropic affinity group in the San Francisco Bay Area and has since grown to become a political home for the left in philanthropy. They were a fiscally sponsored project until 2019 when a team of 8 staff members began to work with a consultant to explore how to structure an independent nonprofit. By 2021, they had become a WSDN. Their staff has since grown to 19 people.

Based in Portland, OR, Healthy Democracy is a four-person nonprofit that designs and coordinates deliberative democracy programs. Founded in 2007, the organization shifted to a four-codirector structure in 2020 in response to a planned leadership turnover.

Based in Boston, MA, Resist is a foundation with a four-person staff that supports people’s movements for justice and liberation. Founded in 1967, the organization went through a self-described “culture shift” which led to their transition to the WSDN model in 2016.

Based in Philadelphia, PA, and founded in 2013, PLAN provides leadership training and guidance for college students in zero waste, environmental justice, and student advocacy. In 2016, the organization adopted a codirector model. In 2022, as both coexecutive directors announced their intention to transition out of the organization, the team decided to shift to a WSDN governance framework, a transition that was completed in June 2023. The organization currently has a staff of 14 and 11 paid student fellows.

Research Findings

[In a worker self-directed nonprofit] “everyone will have to take on some of the awkwardness and the drudgery of management.”

In my interviews, workers covered a range of topics—including decision-making, conflict resolution, trust building, committee structure, the relation to mission, the need for worker education, and the value of peer relationships. Key findings in each of these areas are discussed in further detail below.

  • Decision-Making Structures

In my interviews, workers at all the profiled organizations emphasized how important it is to have very clear decision-making structures. When decision-making is no longer a top-down (but familiar) process, protocols must be in place that are agreed upon and practiced by all team members to ensure the organization runs smoothly.

Each organization has its own unique process which utilizes tools such as consensus, consent, sociocracy, proposals, and fist-to-five voting. Multiple organizations mentioned using the MOCHA model to clearly delegate who is involved in which parts of each decision. MOCHA, as defined by The Management Center, stands for Manager, Owner, Consulted, Helper, Approver. They advise using MOCHA for “solving a specific problem or working on a project where roles and points of engagement aren’t obvious.” Tools like MOCHA ensure that roles remain clear. Sue Bennett from the Sustainable Economies Law Center specifically said that their process is “intended to allow things to move along and allow the brilliance of the collective to shine.”

  • Conflict Resolution and Staff Feedback

While none of my questions specifically asked about conflict resolution or staff evaluation systems, nearly everyone I spoke with talked about how important these systems were. The WSDN model requires increased collaboration among staff to tap into the collective knowledge and experience of the team, which results in more instances of differing opinions between team members.

For some of these organizations, conflict arose early on in discussing collaborative leadership as team members brought in strongly differing perspectives on what the organization should look like. Working through this in the heat of the moment inspired them to build processes they can follow in the future. Other organizations spoke of building their staff evaluation systems to allow the team to engage in generative conflict with clear steps for giving, receiving, and processing feedback and working on solutions together.

People need support to unlearn the default practices of hierarchy that tell us to defer to someone with “more power.”

The Movement Sustainability Commons and Resist share a structure called the Circle of Elders. The Circle is made up of local community members who meet monthly to study transformative justice practice. The Circle of Elders can be used by staff at Resist and The Commons and any of the groups in their network to provide mediation and recommendations in times of conflict and growth.

  • Motivation and Trust

Many of the interviewees talked about how their system would not work without the individuals on the team maintaining momentum toward the collective vision and having built trust with each other. Jay Monteverde at Breach Collective emphasized the need to “take a very clear and serious look at how the responsibilities will be shifted.…Everyone will have to take on some of the awkwardness and the drudgery of management.” Rachel Humphrey from Justice Funders summed up the overall sentiment by saying, “I prefer this version of hard any day of the week.”

  • Circle (Committee) Structure

The Sustainable Economies Law Center coined the term WSDN and has publicly shared a wealth of resources about its own structure. One of the structures they have helped to popularize is called “circles.”

In this structure, all staff who work 20 hours a week or more are part of the General Circle which functions as an overall governing body. Smaller circles, effectively subcommittees, operate in more specialized functions, such as operations, communications, or programming. Each circle has a computer platform workspace and manages its own budget.

As Bennett explains, the goal of circles is to ensure that “the people who are the most impacted by decisions make those decisions.” The circle model has spread widely among movement organizations. As a whole, circles function like a connected series of Venn diagrams, which help illustrate areas of overlap. Not every surveyed organization uses this approach, but those that do share that they have developed their own version to fit with the specific type of work they do.

  • Connection to Mission

Many interviewees spoke of how operating as a WSDN not only impacts their team’s internal functioning but also increases overall success in mission-related work. Interviewees shared that they utilize what they learn from their own process to inform how they support a network of partners with tools, resources, and advice on collaborative leadership to build stronger movement infrastructure. Others utilize the flexibility that this model offers to pivot their programs when frontline fights have emergent needs.

  • Unlearning

Most of us have spent most, if not all, of our lives functioning in top-down hierarchical systems. Many interviewees shared that their previous work experience had exclusively been in traditional nonprofit structures.

When transitioning into a WSDN structure, people need support to unlearn the default practices of hierarchy that tell us to defer to someone with “more power.” They need time and support to learn new methods of communication and decision-making. For organizations making the transition together, this can look like team reflection spaces, staff feedback processes, and ongoing educational tools like trainings.

After an organization has settled into a WSDN structure, the time will inevitably come when the group hires new staff members onto their team. The interviewees advised lengthening the onboarding process for new staff to unlearn habits from less collaborative workspaces and to use mentor-type relationships where experienced staff guide newer staff. The importance of continuous learning spaces was particularly emphasized by Bennett, whose organization has been functioning as a WSDN for nearly 16 years.

  • Using the NetworkWhen people think about nonhierarchical organizations, they often imagine everyone just doing what they want with no systems. This does not work.

The process of becoming and maintaining a WSDN has many rewards. Interviewees spoke of improved collaboration, internal organizational mobility, learning and personal development, empowerment, flexibility, autonomy, and living into values of equity and justice.

But the road to get there can be challenging. Interviewees spoke of how they navigated challenges such as maintaining a living wage for all staff; building administrative expertise; self-regulating time off; budget changes; and the impacts of racism, sexism, and classism in their collaborative spaces.

Each case study provides more detail on how the organizations navigated these specific challenges. Following our discussion on challenges many of the interviewees advised anyone interested in implementing democratic leadership models to use tools and networks of support such as the Sustainable Economy Law Center’s resource page, the Nonprofit Democracy Network, consultants such as The Management Center and AORTA, the case studies from this project, and connections with other WSDNs.

Building Sustainable Democratic Workplace Practices

When people think about nonhierarchical organizations, they often imagine everyone just doing what they want with no systems. This does not work, as feminist Jo Freeman observed over a half-century ago in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

If you dismantle existing hierarchical systems, you need to put the work into developing alternative structures; else, as Freeman detailed, an “informal”—but no less real for the informality—elite will control decision-making. Typically, this informal group is defined by social hierarchies that pervade society, such as class and race.

Freeman’s insight was confirmed by interviewees who emphasized the need for clear, agreed-upon structures that everyone was committed to. The systems, policies, and structures provide critical guidance when questions arise. Effective self-direction requires collaboration, communication, and clear roles for it to work for an organization with a shared mission.

These are still early days for WSDN structures, but the nonprofits that I have studied offer real, tangible examples of what it looks like to practice your values, and they represent a radical change for the nonprofit sector.

While it is not true for all nonprofit workers, there are well-known segments of the nonprofit sector that have been historically infamous for overworked and underpaid staff who make daily personal sacrifices for “the mission.” High turnover rates illustrate that nonprofits must do better.

Democratic leadership has its challenges, but it also offers great promise to better align practice with mission. The organizations I have studied show that it is possible in many cases to make it work, provided nonprofits are willing to invest in the messy work of figuring out what works for them.