Assigning Responsibilities in a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit

In conventional organizations, it’s common for people to have relatively static job descriptions. At worker self-directed organizations, roles and responsibilities tend to be more dynamic and move from person to person. Learn more below and in this video: 

At Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), we have 24 “circles” (working groups) and, within each circle, anywhere between 2 and 15 roles. Each role is assigned to an individual (or sometimes two or three individuals) and comes with a described purpose and a set of responsibilities. An individual's workflow, therefore, is made up of many different roles rather than being defined by a fixed job description. For example, in our Worker Cooperatives Circle (which currently has four people in it), roles include:

  • Legal Research Steward, who keeps track of all outstanding research projects and helps move each forward by assigning them to staff and volunteers
  • Intern Steward, who operates a summer internship program focused on cooperatives
  • Steward, who manages and edits the content on our legal resource website
  • Field Builder, who cultivates relationships with potential contributors and partner organizations for the website
  • Web Master, who manages the design, software updates, and other technical aspects of the website
  • ...and 10 more roles focusing on policy, coalition building, and other specific projects.

Some roles have been held by the same person for two years or more, and other roles shift from person to person quite often, based on individual capacity, the need for specific skills, the priorities of the organization, and other factors. To re-assign a role or change the responsibilities associated with it, a circle member brings a proposal, such as: “I propose that the Steward role be assigned to Sara, because she is a legal genius (or any other reason).” Our process for bringing proposals is described here. In addition, we have a handful of roles, such as Facilitator, that are filled through an election process described here. Finally, some roles rotate regularly, such as the role of “Office Steward,” who is responsible for ensuring a tidy and orderly office.

We see many benefits to abandoning static job descriptions and adopting moveable roles:

  • An organization can maximize its potential by putting the right people in the right roles.
  • Individuals can maximize their potential by moving into roles where they thrive and grow.
  • The organization becomes more resilient if there are at least two people who have filled a role at some point. If one leaves, there will be someone else who knows how to fill that role (some organizations routinely rotate roles for this reason, especially organizations where substitutes are needed even if someone is absent for a day).
  • If someone is not appropriate for a role, they don’t need to be fired or the organization is not stuck with them performing poorly in that role. Someone just needs to bring a proposal to shift that role to someone else. In this way, people feel less vulnerable in their jobs, interpersonal tensions are not likely to creep in, and people can even make proposals to change their coworkers’ roles without it seeming like a big deal.
  • It prevents hierarchies that can result when one person holds too many core responsibilities, and it reduces ego-attachment to roles.

Based on our interviews with multiple worker self-directed nonprofits, we've noticed that each organization manages roles somewhat differently. At the very least, most have roles that move or rotate, though some have identified a few roles -- especially administrative roles -- that remain relatively static with one individual. 

Here's another example:

We interviewed Pangea Legal Services in 2016 about how they distribute responsibilities. One of their goals is to cultivate an environment where each staff member does (mostly) the work they love the most. To accomplish this, they reassess tasks every 6 months. They put up a big chart that lists all the things people are doing and then they collaboratively assign things to equitably distribute workloads, try to match staff with the tasks they like the most, and identify areas that might require outsourcing or hiring new staff.

Thanks to our Partners and Collaborators: