Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) Fall and Spring Legal Intern, Simon Mont, reflects on his experience researching - and participating in - a worker self-directed nonprofit.
I didn’t know much about SELC’s governance structure when I began interning. All I knew is that I had been offered the position by the founder of the organization, Janelle Orsi, but that she needed to check with the staff to make sure it was OK to bring me on. She mentioned that SELC had some sort of collaborative governance but didn’t really go into. A few days later, she suggested that I read “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux in order to prepare for my position. The book described how the philosophy and structure of human organizations has changed over time, and how that shift relates to human development and our understandings of who we are and how we relate to others. As I read its account of innovative organizations that blend empowerment, democracy, and teamwork to succeed, I got a bit more insight into exactly what I was getting myself into. I started to understand that SELC’s vision for a new economy didn’t just require us to do new things; we had to do them in new ways.
On my first day, my supervisors took me out to coffee. We got to know each other a bit, and Janelle and Chris described the work I would be doing. I can’t count how many times they said, “does this sound like something you would be excited to engage in?” I was a little taken aback by their earnestness. I felt like I actually could have said, “No, none of that sounds good. I’d like a different project,” and they would have found one for me. These folks wanted to know me as a holistic person and make sure that the work I was doing was nourishing and important to me. I knew I was in the right place, and I was really excited by the work itself.
I joined a small team researching worker self-directed governance in nonprofits. Worker self-directed nonprofits (WSDNs), like SELC, are structured to embody democracy, unleash the leadership potential of all staff, and adapt to changing circumstances. My project was to understand the legal boundaries these organizations must operate within, familiarize myself with the best practices and difficulties of these organizations, plan how to empower people to adopt worker self-direction in their own organizations, and help SELC develop its own practice of the model.
The experience of working with SELC taught me as much about worker self-direction as all the research. I worked as part of a small circle empowered to carry out work in the name of the larger organization. I saw our team harness the benefits of being small (agile decisions, responsiveness to human needs of members, easy communication) while getting the support from participation in a larger organization (name recognition, connections, colleagues, big brainstorming sessions, administrative infrastructure). I also saw how my project circle stayed in constant communication with the large organization and strategically reached out to other circles working on similar issues. The small circle drove the project, but we could reach out to others if we needed some roles energized or tasks completed.
It was very different from other organizational structures I’ve participated in. There were a few specific assignments that my supervisors knew they wanted me to complete, but more often than not, we designed my assignments as a team based on conversations about the direction and purpose of the project. During our weekly check-ins, we responded to what was present in the moment to decide how to proceed. This meant that I had to be aware of the purpose of the project and how it fit into both the mission of SELC and the vision for the future they share with others that work toward economic justice. I was stretched to do extra research to better understand the context I was operating in, and I was given an opportunity to further explore the connections between my daily activity and transformative social change. I could never complete an assignment mindlessly, because I understood how my work was impacting others in the organization and the trajectory of the project.
SELC’s execution of the worker self-directed model created an exceptional environment for me to learn in. While I was being asked to stretch myself professionally, I was being supported personally. It was a safe place to speak honestly about what I was going through and how that was impacting the work I was producing. The intentional compassion in the workplace allowed me to take care of myself while also motivating me to contribute my best to a collective effort that I was proud to be affiliated with. This balance between flexibility and accountability made me excited to work and also allowed me fit the work into my life. The environment was particularly well suited for interns like myself who are learning professionalism in addition to skills and knowledge and also charting a career
"The structures we create are the worlds we live in. If we create hierarchies in order to pursue equality, we will just get more hierarchy. As I’ve learned through my research, worker self-direction comes in all shapes and sizes. It is as much a collective process of figuring out as it is a discrete organizational or legal model."
I learned not only from the model of the organization, but also from how my teammates modeled being a part of it. I witnessed how they built relationships with people and connections with organizations to create the conditions for transformation. I saw how they dissolved the lines between the personal and the professional so that they could bring their full selves to the work, but allowed those lines to reappear so they could take care of themselves. They formed supportive personal relationships with other SELC staff and spent personal time networking with community members that were working on similar issues. It rarely felt to me as if we were at work; it was a community of people helping each other live who were excited to be building together in SELC’s sandbox.
This experiential learning helped me develop as a professional and as a human who’s trying to figure out how to show up for the world we need. My experience at other organizations where I was assigned tasks by a supervisor taught me to complete what I was told. My experience at SELC taught me to analyze a context, dream up new potentials, and determine what actionable steps would make those potentials real.
The growth and learning I experienced is part of the reason WSDNs exist. WSDNs call upon each of their staff to do more than just show up to work and complete the tasks assigned to them by their bosses. These organizations create room for all staff to develop and coordinate their own responses to further a shared vision. The expectation that every member of staff provides leadership calls upon everyone to rise to the challenge of intentionally building our future.
The model is also a platform to intentionally create a culture that supports our holistic selves. The team takes ownership over the culture in the same way they take ownership over the policies and strategies. Each person knows what they need present in order to bring their best, and the model enables them to shape the space to get it. In the absence of a hierarchical structure, teams learn to navigate decision making and interpersonal issues in more nuanced ways. This prompts the development of new skills and social technologies that enrich people, relationships, and groups.
When I look at my world I see that we need large-scale change in order to survive. Part of that transformation is going to happen in the way we organize our workplaces. This seems all the more important to do that in the nonprofit sector in particular. Nonprofits employ more than 11 million people. That’s 11 million people who want to do good and change the world. Unfortunately, the sector does not harness its potential to change the systems that create many of the problems it seeks to remedy. In fact, the sector has a tendency to the reproduce the systems at the same time it enacts solutions. In addition to the commonplace criticisms of the nonprofit industrial complex, the sector also reproduces hierarchical models. These models make it harder for people within organizations to connect, create, and adapt. They leave the full potential of their staffs untapped.
The structures we create are the worlds we live in. If we create hierarchies in order to pursue equality, we will just get more hierarchy. As I’ve learned through my research, worker self-direction comes in all shapes and sizes. It is as much a collective process of figuring out as it is a discrete organizational or legal model. It is a worthwhile departure from the nonprofit status quo that could bring many organizations into a generative space.