By Sue Bennett and Chris Tittle, Co-directors of the Law Center's Worker Self-Directed Nonprofits Program
On March 27-29, 2019 the Law Center and an amazing team of facilitators and co-organizers hosted the second Nonprofit Democracy Network: Tools for Collective Self-Governance gathering. Over three days at the Omni Commons in Oakland, 60 people from 26 social justice organizations from around the country dove deep into the practices, structures, relationships, and cultures of workplace democracy.Read more
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).Read more
The Nonprofit Democracy Network is a community of practice, organizational development training program, and peer support network for nonprofit organizations that want to deepen democracy within their organizations and make our movements for justice more participatory, responsive, and leaderful.
The Network is launching with an in-person gathering in 2017, out of which we hope to develop more infrastructure and resources to invite others into. Sign up here to find out about such offerings - possibly including webinars, online facilitated conversations, in-person trainings, and a resource database - when they are released.Sign up
As nonprofits and movement workers committed to social transformation, how can we embody the change we want to see and become more effective, accountable, and equitable as we do it? The Nonprofit Democracy Network is a community of practice, organizational development training program, and peer support network for nonprofit organizations that want to deepen democracy within their organizations and make our movements for justice more participatory, responsive, and leaderful.
We launched the network at our inaugural gathering in fall of 2017 (read more about it below). At our second gathering, March 27-29, 2019, we’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of co-creating forms of collective self-governance, taking on topics like compensation, inclusive decision-making, the impact of identity and culture on participation, coordination and accountability, and collective budgeting of time and money.
Through our own experiences practicing participatory governance and working with dozens of other organizations, we’ve learned that decentralized governance can create organizations that are more effective at advancing their mission, more adaptable and responsive to complex systems, more accountable to their communities, and more equitable and fun places to work!
We’ve also learned that self-governance takes practice, training, and a good support network. Starting with a three-day in-person intensive, we are providing training from a variety of methodologies, creating opportunities for structured peer support, and cultivating a network of people from worker self-directed nonprofits with a shared commitment to embodying our visionary politics.
About the 2017 Nonprofit Democracy Network gathering
On September 25-27, 2017, we convened a cohort of people from nonprofit organizations committed to implementing or deepening decentralized and participatory organizational practices.
The initial cohort included:
Participatory Training: An in-person intensive gathering to build community and learn about topics such as peer accountability, the role of a board of directors, fundraising, staff pay, participatory culture, decentralized decision making, meeting facilitation, conflict engagement, history and current political context of the nonprofit sector, and more! Some modules will be customized to address specific needs of participants.
Peer Support: After the in-person gathering, we are co-facilitating monthly peer support and mentoring check-ins to deepen practice and integrate learning over time.
Ongoing Network Building: Co-creation of a library of resources, and opportunities to identify and create appropriate infrastructure for ongoing collaboration and mutual support, rooted in the missions and capacities of cohort members. Examples could be co-writing and publishing a book on nonprofit democracy, organizing and anchoring regional cohorts, policy campaigns to remove barriers to nonprofit democracy, collaborative funding efforts, etc.
The content of the three day training focused on how to create, care for, and increase the impact of deeply democratic organizations. We began by situating ourselves within our current political-historical moment and exploring how self-governance and nonprofits relate to our work and our collective liberation. Within this context, we taught each about how to design systems, implement specific practices, solve sticky problems, and strategize for long-term resilience and effectiveness. We supported each other in making specific plans about how to take learning back into our organizations.
We learned primarily through story and experience. Every participant has experiences attempting to embody their political visions. Every participant has learning to share. No participant (including the Sustainable Economies Law Center) is an expert. We curated and organized stories, exercises, and experiments to help us establish a personal and embodied understanding. Certain topics (like what employment laws to look out for and what the legal constraints are for structuring a board of directors) were taught through direct presentation.
Participants dove deep into particularly sticky issues. Many groups struggle with a common set of issues that includes: determining pay, onboarding staff, hiring/firing, conflict engagement, counter-oppression, decision making, and agenda setting. We paid specific attention to these issues to ensure that groups walked away more empowered to design systems that work for them.
Participants will supported to see the forest through the trees. In addition to learning specific policies and practices, participants explored how those parts hang together to create a coherent whole organization.
We are building connections for an intersectional movement for social, economic, racial, gender, and ecological justice, rooted in a shared commitment to deep democracy. Sign up here to get more information about upcoming Network activities.
By Simon Mont, Organizational Design Fellow
It can be difficult for a nonprofit to stay aligned with its mission. As contexts change and opportunities and funding appear and disappear, leaders are faced with the task of keeping their organizations financially viable while maximizing impact. The pressure to keep the organization afloat financially and keep their staff employed can induce leaders to pursue strategies that are more responsive to funders than what the community really needs. Streams of funding will shift under Trump’s administration, and it’s important that we are vigilant about staying aligned and accountable.Read more
By Simon Mont, Organizational Design Fellow
Humans are truly amazing creatures. We can reason and deduce. We can intuit and feel. We have an innate desire to expand ourselves to understand more complexity, assume more responsibility, make bigger contributions, and develop into an ideal version of our selves that we can now just barely glimpse even in the moments of our greatest clarity. We hold visions of unnameable harmony and justice in our hearts. When we have the space to follow this deeply held, essentially human, intuition, we are capable of tremendous insight and creativity.Read more
By LUCAS MCGRANAHAN for Democracy at Work
Excerpt: The question is how far democracy can be embedded into a nonprofit organization. This question is now being taken up by Oakland’s Sustainable Economies Law Center, a self-described ‘worker self-directed nonprofit.’ Because the Law Center supports worker cooperatives, housing cooperatives, community renewable energy cooperatives, and other forms of economic democracy, they consider it important to practice workplace democracy themselves. In the words of staff member Chris Tittle, “distributing leadership throughout our organization has undoubtedly led to us to be more creative in our work, more inclusive in our perspectives, and more accountable to each other, our communities, and our partners.”Read more
Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) Fall and Spring Legal Intern, Simon Mont, reflects on his experience researching - and participating in - a worker self-directed nonprofit.
I didn’t know much about SELC’s governance structure when I began interning. All I knew is that I had been offered the position by the founder of the organization, Janelle Orsi, but that she needed to check with the staff to make sure it was OK to bring me on. She mentioned that SELC had some sort of collaborative governance but didn’t really go into. A few days later, she suggested that I read “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux in order to prepare for my position. The book described how the philosophy and structure of human organizations has changed over time, and how that shift relates to human development and our understandings of who we are and how we relate to others. As I read its account of innovative organizations that blend empowerment, democracy, and teamwork to succeed, I got a bit more insight into exactly what I was getting myself into. I started to understand that SELC’s vision for a new economy didn’t just require us to do new things; we had to do them in new ways.Read more
By Simon Mont, Legal Intern
On February 11, staff and volunteers of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) gathered to see just how much fun we could have engaging with IRS Form 990—a required filing for nonprofits. Below are 7 things we've learned about the 990, particularly for worker self-directed nonprofits. Read on!
What do you get when you cross a worker cooperative with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit? A worker self-directed nonprofit!
As the movement for economic and workplace democracy continues to grow, we think it is vitally important that nonprofit organizations also internalize and practice workplace democracy. We've put a fair bit of thought into our own organizational structure and culture, and now we are working to provide resources, advice, research, and a peer network to support worker self-direction in nonprofits everywhere.
So what's a worker self-directed nonprofit? We are defining this as a nonprofit organization in which all workers have the power to influence the programs in which they work, the conditions of their workplace, their own career paths, and the direction of the organization as a whole. Our own experience practicing worker self-direction and an emerging body of research both show that distributing leadership throughout an organization can create organizations that are more effective at advancing their mission, more adaptable and responsive to complex systems, more accountable to their communities, and more equitable and fun places to work! Read more here.
There are lots of reasons to be critical of the nonprofit industry, but by their very nature, nonprofit organizations provide a structure that resists the strong pull toward private wealth accumulation. We should not abandon nonprofits. We should just democratize them!
Nonprofit Democracy Network
Now, more than ever, we must learn to govern ourselves. As nonprofits and movement workers committed to social transformation, how can we embody the change we want to see and become more effective, accountable, and equitable as we do it? The Nonprofit Democracy Network is a community of practice, organizational development training program, and peer support network for nonprofit organizations that want to deepen democracy within their organizations and make our movements for justice more participatory, responsive, and leaderful. Learn more and apply here!
Bite-Sized Legal Guide to Becoming a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit
Click here to view this Bite-Sized Legal Guide, we explore how worker self-direction can help nonprofits better achieve their missions, as well as the legal considerations for becoming a worker self-directed nonprofit. This bite-sized guide also includes a sample board resolution for worker self-direction.
Model documents and other resources:
Click here to see all of the Law Center's internal policies and processes for worker self-direction. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license for easy sharing! This public Google Folder also has an ever-growing collection of handouts, slides, model documents, and more.
Topics and Videos:
- Who Sets Priorities at a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit?
- The Role of The Board
- Meeting Processes
- Tour the Office of a WSDN!
- Onboarding New Staff
- Dividing Labor and Assigning Responsibilities
- Fiscal Sponsorship Versus Independent 501(c)(3)
- Bringing our Whole Selves to Work
- Alignment and Resiliency
- Setting Staff Compensation
- Peer Accountability and Performance Reviews
Periodically, we run in-person trainings on how to implement worker self-direction at our Resilient Communities Legal Cafe. Check our event calendar for upcoming events or email Chris@theselc.org to discuss a team-specific training.
If you need help forming or transitioning to a worker self-directed nonprofit, we are now offering phone consultations on a sliding scale of $50 to $300 per hour. These fees support our work in developing resources and workshops for nonprofits and in growing a movement of democratic workplaces in the nonprofit sector. We are able to provide both strategy and governance advice, and, depending on where you are located, legal advice. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation, please fill out this short survey and give us a little information about what you are looking for. We can’t guarantee that we can provide consultations in all cases, since our capacity is limited.
Networking: Join our Google Group and our Facebook Group to participate in an informal peer network for active and aspiring worker self-directed nonprofit practitioners. Connect with others, ask questions, and share resources about workplace democracy in nonprofit organizations.
Share your ideas and feedback: Take this short survey to help guide the direction of this project and let us know if you'd like to collaborate!