Participation in a worker self-directed nonprofit (WSDN) requires a wide set of skills that many people are not explicitly trained for: interpersonal communication, self-reflection, self-direction, peer accountability, and collaborative decision-making, to name a few. Particularly in a society in which most of us are not exposed to very many participatory institutions and are actively taught to compete and take orders from others, this presents both opportunities and challenges for worker self-directed organizations. Read more below, but, first, here's a short video emphasizing the unique challenges:
Our own experience as an organization, as well as those of the organizations we have interviewed, suggests that participation in democratic workplaces encourages people to grow into these skill sets, and provides a unique platform for personal and professional growth. However, many people need ongoing support and training to fully step into the types of leadership that self-direction requires. Democratic organizations may also have unique and complex organizational cultures that require significant orientation for new members to understand and integrate into. So how can WSDNs effectively onboard new members without radically narrowing the pool of candidates to people with existing experience in such environments?
At Sustainable Economies Law Center, we are constantly trying to refine our onboarding process, particularly as our organization has grown in size. Every new staff person is assigned two peer mentors for the first several months: 1) an "on-board-a-buddy" that helps to coordinate the onboarding process over the first several weeks and ensures all the identified tasks and trainings with other staff get scheduled (e.g. employment paperwork, training in our contact management and internal task management system, review and discussion of internal policies and governance processes, etc.), and 2) a "project point person" who meets with the new staff member weekly for the first few months to review workflow, provide project guidance, and take stock of the new staff person's overall workload and level of comfort. As the organization has grown in complexity, we have extended the onboarding period from a few days of intensive training to a few months of ongoing training and support.
How Solidarity NYC Onboards New Members
SolidarityNYC has a relatively long onboarding process. A potential core member begins by volunteering on a specific project for at least three months. At that point, they are invited to join business and visioning meetings. After three more months of attending those meetings, they can ask to be considered for full membership in the organization.
SolidarityNYC reports that this enables them to ensure that everyone who comes into their organization is politically aligned and has the skills and mindsets necessary for smooth collaboration. This works for SolidarityNYC because it is a volunteer organization and does not need to pay people for the six months prior to being considered for full membership. Nonetheless, many worker cooperatives use similar candidacy periods, so this could be used as a model in other WSDNs.