By Simon Mont, Organizational Design Fellow
It can be difficult for a nonprofit to stay aligned with its mission. As contexts change and opportunities and funding appear and disappear, leaders are faced with the task of keeping their organizations financially viable while maximizing impact. The pressure to keep the organization afloat financially and keep their staff employed can induce leaders to pursue strategies that are more responsive to funders than what the community really needs. Streams of funding will shift under Trump’s administration, and it’s important that we are vigilant about staying aligned and accountable.
In addition to the financial pressure, leaders are faced with a host of social and psychological pressures to balance. Leaders are people. They have personal motivations, predispositions, strengths, and weaknesses that impact their entire organizations. A leader may want to be respected, they may have or want access to certain social or political spaces, they have reputations to manage, careers to protect, and families to feed. These personal factors and more will impact, though often only subconsciously, a leader’s strategy.
The pressure to deviate from mission was significant before the election of Trump, and we can expect it to be heightened in the new environment. We already operate in an environment where funding can be taken away from an organization because they make a political statement that was unrelated to the object of a grant. Leaders can be excluded from access to resources, professional spaces, and decision-making opportunities based on their politics and identity. We now have a President-elect that is calling for the registration of Muslims, a Secretary of State that wants to create a new House Unamerican Activities Commission, and a white supremacist as a chief policy advisor. We should not underestimate the heightened social and political pressures we face. We, as nonprofit leaders, have to be aware of the possibility that our work and our leadership could deviate unintentionally or be co-opted strategically.
As nonprofits prepare for this new environment, it is more important than ever to remain aligned with impacted communities, accountable to transformative visions of the world, and in personal integrity to our visions of justice. Unfortunately, the current structure of our nonprofits is vulnerable to deviation and co-optation. When decision-making is in the hands of the few, then entire organizations become dependent on the dispositions of leaders. And when the leaders sit atop hierarchies, they are increasingly exposed to pressures to abandon the community-based accountability that will help them stay in alignment. The good news is there is a viable, resilient alternative that protects against the threats our work face: Here at the Sustainable Economies Law Center we call it Worker Self-Direction.
Worker Self-Direction distributes decision-making power across members of an organization. Organizations replace powerful leaders with teams of peers, each bringing their own leadership, experience, and perspective to bear on decisions, and each transparently holding each other accountable for their work products and for their alignment with their values and the mission of the organization. This model uses equality and democracy to protect against the three biggest risks of mission slip.
Risk 1: Decision Maker’s Social Position
Folks that sit atop large hierarchies tend to be members of networks that staff and community members do not have direct access to. They may serve on the boards of multiple organizations, some for-profit others nonprofit. They may be part of networks formed at elite educational institutions, and their networks are certainly influenced by their race, class, national origin, ability, sexuality and gender. This can create a situation where decision makers are pursuing belonging and advancement in circles whose politics, values, beliefs, and strategies are not in alignment with the needs of the communities that their organizations are supposed to serve.
This misalignment of personal perspective and collective need has always been an issue in mission-driven work. It is at the root of so many calls for people to “check their privilege,” to be aware of how their life experience has shaped their understanding of the world, and to elevate the leadership and voice of the most impacted communities. For the next four years, this misalignment will be more dangerous than it has been since the McCarthy era.
Folks hoping to preserve access to elite circles could very well face a world where they are rejected from spaces because they speak out against Islamophobia, stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, advocate for the rights of immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and indigenous people, or speak out on climate change. As social norms become more oppressive, criticism will become more risky, and the risk to the reputation and careers of leaders who speak out will increase.
Though our leaders can steel themselves against potential mission creep, or make a commitment to speak out, they cannot escape the fact that they are human; and they likely want to feel good about themselves as they seek belonging and career advancement. This creates pressure for folks to adopt ideologies that rationalize or minimize the harm occurring in vulnerable communities. People develop ways of thinking that enables them to dedicate themselves and their organizations to activities that are not truly responsive to the tremendous pain of other people, but appear to be responsive so that they can pursue their own self interest with no guilt or cognitive dissonance. For most folks, this pressure is operating at a subconscious level; and that's precisely what makes it so dangerous: it influences us without us being aware of its effect.
If our leaders adopt these mindsets while maintaining significant control over our organizations, they could steer strategies away from the needs of the people they are trying to serve. It may be near impossible to protect individuals from the impact of social pressures, but we can protect our organizations by practicing democracy within our workplaces. When we equalize the decision making power of the folks who represent our organizations to funders with the power of staff that works most closely with impacted communities, we reduce the impact that one person has on the organization, and we protect the integrity of our organizations. Not only will our decision making be closer to the people we hope to support, but we will be farther from potentially corrupting influence of spaces filled with folks who have more to gain from ignoring deep problems like patriarchy and white supremacy than they do from addressing them.
Risk 2: Lack of Accountability for Personal Behavior:
“I was just doing my job,” is one of the most powerful moral excuses out there. Not only does it allow individuals to absolve themselves of how their personal behavior contributes to collective effects, it also enables directly violent behavior. One must only call to mind Stanley Milgram’s shock box experiment, and the image of test subjects administering what they believed to be fatal electric shocks to an actor at the instruction of a “doctor,” to remember all humans’ harrowing capacity to be misguided by authority.
When we implement worker self-direction in our organizations, we call upon every single person to think critically about the impact their personal actions have on the organization and on the broader community. Every single person is called into a process of critical reflection and they make their own decisions about what behavior is appropriate for the moment. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying “I was just doing my job,” because we are the ones that came up with the job to begin with.
This shared responsibility creates resiliency in two ways. On an organizational level, there are many different peers providing reflection and accountability to make sure that there is alignment and accountability. This enhances the integrity of the organization and the individuals that comprise it. On a broader level, participants within these organizations gain the experience of critically thinking through the multifaceted implications of various strategies and actions. They carry their ability to critique and the sense of empowered integrity into all spaces they enter and can promote personal accountability throughout society.
Risk 3: Stifling Critical Feedback
Giving feedback to a “superior” can be tough. If a boss doesn’t take it well, we may be met with dismissal, scolding, or career repercussions that discourage us from speaking up. And beyond the personal obstacles, even when we do voice opinions there are not always mechanisms in place to make sure they are genuinely heard by the folks making decisions.
Criticism is essential to accountability and alignment. We need to be open to challenging reflections, especially when we are being told that our behavior is out of alignment with our personal values or organizational mission. The process of receiving critical feedback enables us to refine our ideas and strategies to make them more effective. And the more differently-situated folks that are truly welcome to give generative criticism, the more informed our collective decisions will become. As we move into a time where many people in our country feel confused and disoriented as they chart trajectories that are responsive to the political climate, it is especially important that we create space for us to hold each other accountable to our highest good.
By removing hierarchies, we remove four different barriers to critical feedback. First, we remove the potential consequences that can be enforced by someone with more organizational power. The person you are giving feedback to has no absolute say over your job security, salary, or work assignments so you can speak a bit more freely. Second, the person receiving feedback cannot hide behind defense mechanism of superiority or advanced experience. Often feedback from someone “beneath us” on a hierarchy can resonate with us as a threat or a statement about our competency. It's often easier for us to accept feedback when it comes from a peer. Third, we can create decision making structures that ensure that people can see the impact of the criticism they voice. Fourth, we create cultures where it is normal and welcome to help each other and the organization stay aligned and accountable.
Hierarchies are vulnerable. Leaders atop them face pressure to make innumerable small concessions that, when taken as a whole, pull the organization away from its original intention. And even when a leader does resist the financial, social, and psychological pressures they are exposed to, when that leader leaves, the organization may never recover.
Democracy, peer accountability, empowerment, and alignment with community needs have always been important. They are even more important now. As we prepare for an administration that will make it more difficult for many of us to stay financially viable and in alignment with our mission, we need to make a commitment to our own integrity.
In a time of fascism we can either let democracy erode, or we can deepen it. If we embed it into the fabric of our organizations, each workplace will become a garden for democracy. And we will be able to maintain our service to our communities during challenging times.