Launching the Nonprofit Democracy Network

By Simon Mont, Organizational Design Fellow //

How can nonprofits and movement workers committed to social transformation embody the change we want to see and become more effective, accountable, and equitable as we do it? In late September 2017, thirty-eight people from eighteen different organizations based in ten different states came together to answer this question and learn how to effectively govern, manage, and coordinate their organizations. Over three days, the gathered organizations each contributed to training, knowledge sharing, and relationship building to prepare the soil for a vibrant community of support for these organizations and more long into the future: it was the beginning of the Nonprofit Democracy Network (NPDN).

The NPDN is not the only attempt to learn how to operate effective nonprofit organizations; what sets it apart from other similar projects is how it defines “effective.”  For the NPDN, deliverables, quantifiable metrics, and program delivery are limited measurements of effectiveness; equally important is the extent to which the relationships, culture, and governance of the organization enacts values of justice, community, and sustainability while creating the potential for systemic transformation. This group of organizations envisions a liberated, resilient, and dynamic movement capable of solving social problems at their roots; and they have come together to help each other build it.

Participants in the inaugural Nonprofit Democracy Network gathering

Participating organizations had varying areas of focus: providing legal services for immigrants, organizing permaculture action day, creating feminist media, ensuring access to abortions, and coordinating new economy organizations. Like trees in a forest, they may appear separate but underneath the surface they are connected. This diverse group is united by two characteristics: (1) an understanding that the success of all of their work depends on transforming patterns deeply embedded into our social, political, and economic system;  and (2) a need for organizational models that enable them to collaborate more effectively and equitably.

The gathering charted much of the terrain of democratic organizational governance. Each participating organization facilitated conversations or gave presentations on one of a number of topics including staff structure, culture creation, strategic planning, participatory budgeting, tactical fundraising, just compensation, and efficient and equitable decision-making. Since the end of the gathering, organizations have been staying in contact one-on-one, participating in group check-in calls, sharing support through a Slack group, and building an online resource bank.

This three-day gathering was just the beginning. Organizations across the country and around the world are acutely aware of a central struggle we all face:  many of our solutions to social problems reproduce the very problems they are trying to solve, and until we solve that dynamic, we we will never be able to really accomplish our goals.  This nascent network is not just bringing the conversation to the nonprofit sector, it is coming up with solutions and experiments to work through the struggles it observes.

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