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 currently designing a multi-month distance learning course, which we hope to launch in fall 2021. Sign up here to get updates on joining the Network once this new program is launched!Sign up
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.
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. We launched the network at our inaugural gathering in fall of 2017. At our second gathering, March 27-29, 2019, we dove further 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. Read a summary and reflection on the 2019 Network gathering here.
Joining the Network in 2020
As of August 2020, we've welcomed almost 40 new member organizations to the Network! At this moment, we are closing the application so we can focus on deepening connections and peer learning with existing Network members. Please sign up here to learn about future opportunities to connect with us.
More about past Nonprofit Democracy Network gatherings
In Fall 2017 and Spring 2019, we convened a cohort of people from organizations committed to implementing or deepening decentralized and participatory organizational practices.
These convenings 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 when they are announced.
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!
Worker Self-Directed Nonprofits
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!
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 [email protected] to discuss a team-specific training.
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.