Worker self-direction opens up new possibilities for accountability to communities. By moving decision-making down to the ground level, staff that have direct relationships and interactions with community members are able to steer the organization in a way that is closely responsive to on-the-ground needs. Each staff member becomes a sensor of community needs and is empowered to respond to those needs by proposing actions, solutions, and new projects. Read about examples below.
But first, please enjoy Episode #1 of WSDN: Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit TV, a series of short videos where we explain various facets of worker self-directed nonprofits.
Who Sets Priorities at Sustainable Economies Law Center?
At Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), staff members interact constantly with other nonprofit organizations, either in collaborative projects or in providing legal advice. In 2015, after nearly 3 years of practice as a worker self-directed nonprofit (WSDN), we organized a workshop and webinar about WSDNs. The response was overwhelming, and nonprofits everywhere expressed a need to learn more.
That was all it took for SELC to develop a project focused on WSDNs, led by staff members Chris Tittle and Janelle Orsi, working with input from our Cooperatives Program, which includes three other staff members. We brought on a law student intern, Simon Mont, to help develop the project over the course of a year.
Did the Board ask us to do this? No. Did we need their permission? No. We told the Board about the project and received their input, and otherwise developed the project with the feedback of our coworkers, clients, and community. The history of SELC includes many stories like this: In our day-to-day work, staff sense a strong need and create a new project to respond, because we believe the project will significantly advance our mission. Our Board has empowered us to sense and respond to needs in this way, because they, too, believe it is a powerful way to make change.
We have interviewed close to a dozen other nonprofit organizations about their governance structures, and have collected examples that illustrate the variety of ways in which nonprofits seek to be responsive to the needs of their communities:
Community-Led Governance at ONE DC
ONE DC organizes “to focus on community organizing, equitable development, popular education, and resident-led change” in Washington DC. ONE DC is not worker self-directed, but, rather, places community members at the center of its highly participatory governance model.
ONE DC has a nine-person board of directors and four staff members. They have renamed their board the “Shared Leadership Team” (SLT) to indicate that this group is grounded in Ella Baker’s ethic of collective decision-making and collective work. The SLT is comprised of dues paying members of the organization who live in the communities and buildings that the organization is protecting from displacement. The SLT steers the organization through regular annual strategic visioning retreats that are open to all members and staff. The role of staff is to carry out priorities set by the SLT.
This model ensures that residents, as a collective and through representation on SLT, will be able to steer the organization. The positioning of staff as primarily responsive to the priorities set by the SLT is actually an asset to the organization. It allows them to bring on people who have the specialized skills the community needs without risking that the staff will undertake projects that aren’t directly responsive to the needs of the community.