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Nonprofits, we need to move away from the hierarchical decision-making model

January 14, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose

Disclosures

This guest column was written by Sam Chenkin (she/her or they/them), a community organizer and founder of the nonprofit consultancy Reclaim the Sector.
There’s been a lot of talk about dismantling white supremacy in the nonprofit world. There are movements to center disabled people, trans people, queer people. There’s been plenty of hand wringing.

But still our boards and decision makers remain mostly white, able, cisgender and born into financial security. Our sector continues to embody and enact white supremacy, transphobia, ableism, and capitalism.

(Photo by fauxels from Pexels)

I believe it is possible for people who have primarily lived a life of privilege to be true allies. It is possible for nonprofits run by these people to be radical and transformative. But it’s not easy, and we aren’t doing particularly well so far. A few trainings aren’t going to do it, nor will hiring one Black person to leadership, or even having a trans friend (trust me on this last one).

Even being a person with a marginalized experience does not guarantee a deep knowing of the desperate need for intersectional liberation. It’s all too easy to become trapped in the need to maintain power and comfort.

I believe that representation in the nonprofit sector is critical. But let’s not wait to rebuild ourselves. There’s a more immediate way.

One of the things the nonprofit world has borrowed from the corporate world, one of the most insidious, is hierarchical decision making. Designed for efficiency and the consolidation of wealth, hierarchical decision making concentrates power among a select few (and we all know which few). This model is a choice. So, let’s choose something different.

Instead of waiting for our leadership to become representative and/or woke, we can just share power.

By power I mean the right to make decisions. I don’t mean that every nonprofit should have a tokenized advisory board. I don’t mean that we should invite a representative of our direct service staff to a leadership meeting or two. Instead, we should structurally move away from a hierarchical decision-making model. We should learn from liberatory movements, ask our communities for help, and try something new.

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I’m not suggesting every organization needs to or should have a fully decentralized democratic structure. Creativity can lead us to somewhere in the middle. Keep your boards and your executive leadership structures and your managers — at least until we find something better. Add parallel and equally powerful ways for the people we serve to direct us towards justice and liberation.

Here are some rough ideas:

  • Foundations could run quarterly meetings with representatives of every community they fund. Organizations should be paid to attend, compare notes, and complain while eating free food. These groups should have the right to shape the policies and funding goals of the foundation – perhaps veto power over board decisions or the ability to vote up and down grant policy changes.
  • Direct service organizations could have program-design boards with equal representation from delivery staff and community members. These boards should be the final approval body for new programs. Members should be paid and receive training. They should decide on their own rules and membership. When funders demand changes to programs, community members should get to decide if the program is still in their best interests.
  • Strategic plans should include at least as many constituents on the decision making committee as staff or board members. Why is this still not the norm?
  • We should have as many community members in the room as staff when we are designing programs in the first place.

In short, we should encourage our constituents to connect, build power, and demand whatever will have the greatest impact. Nonprofit leaders should find humility and relinquish control. We should all be working together.

Nonprofit leaders should find humility and relinquish control. We should all be working together.

I’m not pretending it will be easy. There are a thousand ways my ideas above could fail. Sharing power is hard. Just as nonprofit leadership has a hard time knowing the needs of communities, community members have a hard time knowing the realities of running a nonprofit. And we all know that infighting and politics will be part of any constituent group, just as they are part of our organizations’ operations.

But with that difficulty will come accountability. Accountability to either create change or to allow our organizations to die. It’s OK if we don’t all make it.

More than that, sharing power can bring us joy and connection. Those with power and privilege do not need to live their lives in isolation from those without. It’s another choice. If we try, we can create organizations that are indistinguishable from the communities we serve. We can celebrate together and grieve together.

Liberation is possible when we form connections and trust in order to build something new together.

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