Theory of Change, Governance, and Financial Transparency
Legal education, research, advice, and advocacy for just and resilient economies.
Mission: Sustainable Economies Law Center cultivates a new legal landscape that supports community resilience and grassroots economic empowerment. We provide essential legal tools - education, research, advice, and advocacy - so communities everywhere can develop their own sustainable sources of food, housing, energy, jobs, and other vital aspects of a thriving community.
Or as Lady Justice says it:
Our Theory of Change
Neither our communities nor our ecosystems are well served by an economic system that incentivizes perpetual growth, wealth concentration, and the exploitation of land and people. Communities everywhere are responding to these converging economic and ecological crises with a grassroots transformation of our economy that is rapidly re-localizing production, reducing resource consumption, and rebuilding the relationships that make our communities thrive.
However, as new solutions for resilience emerge, many are running into entrenched legal barriers: laws originally designed to protect people from the ills of industrialism are now preventing many communities from growing and selling their own food, investing in local businesses, creating sustainable housing options, and cooperatively owning land and businesses.
Sustainable Economies Law Center exists to bridge the gap in legal expertise needed to transition from destructive economic systems to innovative and cooperative alternatives. Our 10 programs work together in identifying key leverage points in our existing economic and legal systems, removing strategic legal barriers, and creating replicable models for community resilience. We work to:
Envision more just and resilient economic and legal systems;
Identify and advocate for public policies that remove legal barriers to resilient communities while maintaining and strengthening worker, consumer and environmental protections;
Empower community-based entrepreneurs and innovators to create replicable legal structures that will form the blueprints of the new economy;
Educate communities and law-makers about the potential of new economic strategies; and
Train the next generation of community-based lawyers to meet the burgeoning legal needs of resilient communities everywhere.
See below to see how we embody this change in our own organizational structure and processes:
Part of Sustainable Economies Law Center's approach to catalyzing a more just and resilient society is to be the change we want to see. We have adopted policies that distribute "ownership" throughout the organization, allow for more dignified livelihoods, expand access to our legal services, and empower a new generation of grassroots legal experts.
We offer our Internal Policy Wiki to the public as an example of our organization's internal policies, not necessarily as recommendations that your organization should copy. There is a story behind every policy, and our stories may not be relevant for your organization. That said, many of our policies and practices have been informed by learning from and with other organizations. You are welcome to copy and remix these policies: everything we create is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0.)
These policies include:
An equitable pay rate: We believe equal pay for all staff is an essential foundation for compensation when, historically and structurally, pay differences have generally mirrored dynamics of oppression, disenfranchisement, and marginalization in society. Nevertheless, when people face different challenges, both historic and present, addressing systems of oppression and individuals’ different circumstances requires a commitment to equity, not just equality. Therefore, we start with equal pay rates as a profound alternative to the inequities of the labor market and continue to evolve our compensation practices as we find sound methods for considering equitable variations in pay.
Decentralized governance: We take pride in our ability to get a lot done, and we credit much of our efficiency to the implementation of a highly structured system of distributed decision-making. Each program is run by a semi-autonomous circle of staff and volunteers, nested within larger circles of accountability. Our decision-making processes enable each staff member to propose projects and take significant leadership roles, optimizing individual autonomy and collective responsibility.
Time off policies: To maximize employee well being and optimize individual autonomy and collective accountability, we recognize the value of a 30 hour work week. After 5 years of employment, staff are eligible for a 16 week paid sabbatical. To further our commitment to supporting staff members as whole persons, Sustainable Economies Law Center allows staff members to take up to 40 weeks paid leave in one 12-month period to recover and care for a new child; care for an ill family member; anticipate the arrival of a child by birth or placement in connection with adoption or foster care, and/or recover, care for, and/or bond with a child by birth or placement in connection with adoption or foster care.
We have also launched a project to promote and support emerging models of decentralized nonprofit governance, which we're calling worker self-directed nonprofits. Find out more about this project here, and check out the resources, webinars, and teach-ins we've already put together to learn from and support other nonprofits.
The Sustainable Economies Law Center values transparency and we want you to know that we use our funds mindfully. Here are a few things you might like to know about our finances, explained with the help of trees and stick figures:
All 15 staff members earn an equitable salary based on a wage calculator we developed based on staff members' needs.
From the Law Center’s inception, equitable compensation has been a core value. Up until 2016, the Law Center had a flat salary with each staff member making at least $60,137 when working full-time, which was based on MIT’s regional living wage calculator and takes "wants/savings" and dependents into account.
Once staff members started to move away from the Bay Area, we realized we needed to adjust our compensation since cost of living now varied across staff members. So we developed a wage calculator using this formula:
MIT Living Wage (60%) + Savings & Wants (40%) = Base Salary
On top of the base salary, we add in additional salary adjustments based on certain variables like numbers of dependents and childcare costs. Based on our wage calculator algorithm, our salaries now range between $60,137 and $92,000 across the organization.
The wage calculator has been more adaptive to our needs than a flat salary; accounts for yearly changes in cost of living and # of dependents; allows for personal/political decisions to decrease salary; and encourages complex organizational discussion regarding each person’s relationships to money, privilege, and politics.
The wage calculator has helped us meet our ever evolving needs, and it doesn’t reflect all of our values and needs. The numbers MIT comes out with yearly are often incongruent with our lived experience with changes in regional costs of living. We’ve learned over the years that our attempts to quantify our needs often miss the nuances of our individual lives. The algorithm can create a false objectivity that might disincentivize conversation in favor of the calculator, handing off responsibility for outcomes to the calculator, rather than the group.
Our compensation structure is a conversation that we revisit often and we use it as an opportunity to learn about each other's values, needs, and personal politics.
We have grown and added programs every year since 2009, in response to enormous demand and vast potential of this work. Our budget has grown in proportion over the years, as told by the following redwood chart:
Our budget has grown a lot recently because we’ve become an incubator of new projects, leaders, and organizations. We’ve learned that it takes a lot of work, people, technical support, operational support, and funding to build the ecosystem for the next economy, and we’re channeling our assets to that end! Since 2018, we have received and administered over $9 million on behalf of fiscally sponsored projects. Below are a few of the fiscally sponsored projects we support:
Where Our Funding Comes From
Most of our funding comes from grants, though a growing proportion comes from earned income and individual donors. In 2021, 371 individual donors supported our work with a donation.
Grants: In some years, grants have accounted for up to 90% of our income. In 2022, about 2/3 of our revenue was grants. In 2022, we brought in roughly $1.4 M in grants.
Earned income: We earn income from public speaking fees, workshop fees, book royalties, research and writing contracts, legal services, and other consultation. In 2022, this totaled $103,000.
Individual donations: Over the years, hundreds of individual donors have made contributions. For 2022, individual donations totaled over $130,000, plus an additional $400k from an individual donor. Oh, by the way, you can help us do that by becoming a Member with a recurring donation or making a one-time donation!
More stuff: Click here for our 2021 Form 990.
Click here for our 2021 Audited Financial Statements
Click here for our Original Tax Exemption Application
Based in Oakland, California, Sustainable Economies Law Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.