Michael Haber speaking at the Hudson River Maritime Museum

On a sticky July night, with thunderstorms threatening, more than sixty people from across the region gathered at the Hudson River Maritime Museum to talk about creating alternatives to hierarchy and sharing leadership in the workplace. The evening was organized by a loose working group of folks who came together out of the cooperatives and shared leadership networking gatherings hosted by Good Work Institute in Poughkeepsie, Kingston, and Rhinebeck last fall.

Our featured speaker for the night was Michael Haber, an attorney from Hofstra University. Haber directs Hofstra’s Community and Economic Development Clinic, which assists community organizations, cooperatives, and small businesses in low income communities. I had first seen Haber speak at the Our Economy conference at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies in April. Haber has worked with dozens of activist and community organizations that are thinking about becoming a nonprofit organization but are wary of the compromises and baggage associated with the traditional nonprofit form.

There are many issues with nonprofits, Haber said. They’ve been critiqued for diluting the power of social movements, blunting their political edge and directing them towards tamer service provision. Community leadership can be lost as they hire specialized staff to pursue and then administer grant funding. However, Haber said, incorporating as a nonprofit can also offer a group some considerable advantages, making it far easier to enter into contracts, hire workers, rent or buy space, and receive grants. It is possible, he suggested, for nonprofits to be aware of the pressures that the funding process puts on them to tamp down their message and tactics, and work to retain their original mission.

Traditional nonprofit organization structure, lived experience — Image by Michael Haber

Another critical issue that groups Haber works with are often concerned about is the hierarchical structure nonprofit organizations tend to think they have to adopt. There was widespread laughter in the audience when Haber put up this image of the lived experience of nonprofit work: “I’m way down in the corner without much ability to have an impact on anything,” very different from the impact I may have hoped for when I came to work at the organization.

Haber said that, although there’s an aura of inevitability around today’s typical nonprofit structure, it really only dates back to about the 1970s. Previously, they tended to be looser in structure, with a wider mix of activities and priorities. And today, there are many organizations exploring the use of other structures. Haber walked us through four of these structures in active use around the country.

One that has already become quite common in nonprofit organizations, especially among intentional communities, is sociocracy. Sociocracy was created in the 1970s by a Dutch engineer named Gerard Endenburg who wanted to find a better way to organize the company he’d inherited, to more fully mobilize everyone’s creativity and skills. A sociocratic organization consists of a hierarchy of self-managed circles, each with considerable autonomy over how they pursue the missions assigned to them by the larger organization. Circles govern themselves by talking in rounds, hearing from each member in turn, in order to ensure that all ideas are surfaced and all perspectives are taken into account. Decision-making is by consent of all circle members. Anyone not consenting to a proposal must give a reasoned argument that can be used to better understand the issues and modify the proposal as needed.

Three versions of sociocracy — Image by Michael Haber

Circles are linked to other circles within the organization by representatives who carry circle perspectives and decisions to the next circle in the chain. These circles are often arranged in a hierarchy, with a Board Circle, consisting of the usual Board of Directors, linked to a General Circle, consisting of the Executive Director and other senior managers. The General Circle can then be linked to several Program or Department Circles, and from there to sub-circles for specific projects or teams as needed. But this general structure has been reimagined in several different configurations, Haber said, including by adding Community Advisory and Funders’ Circles, to represent the perspectives of key external stakeholders and, at the North Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, by creating a General Assembly Circle, consisting of all chapter members, that has the ultimate say over the chapter’s work via a Coordination Circle linked to several Organizing Circles.

Sociocracy for All, an organization promoting sociocracy around the world, offers case studies of some two dozen nonprofit, for-profit, and cohousing organizations practicing sociocracy. (They also have an excellent introductory video, online classes, and nifty diagrams of different organizations’ sociocratic structures.)

“What do you get when you cross a worker cooperative with a nonprofit?”

A modified version of sociocracy was created by the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland. They call their model the Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit, and describe it as “what you get when you cross a worker cooperative with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.” A General Circle consisting of all staff collectively governs and manages work through some two dozen smaller circles. Circles consist of roles — or responsibilities for particular pieces of work — which the staff can readily move among in order to equalize opportunities and burdens and reduce hierarchy, bureaucracy, and pay differentials. Thus, Haber said, “A single employee might be part of five different circles, and have several different roles in each of those circles.” Once a circle is created by the General Circle, it can make its own decisions about how best to accomplish the mission it was given, by defining its own internal projects, adding new members to the circle, and creating sub-circles if needed.

Rather than delegating management to an Executive Director, as in many organizations, the Board delegates it to the General Circle, having “resolved that it is in the best interests of the organization to have staff govern under a system of worker self-management, in recognition that the staff are well positioned, well informed, skilled, and motivated to advance the mission.” The Board retains specific oversight roles (called “Owls”) for legal compliance and financial, mission, and governance integrity. SELC has made a variety of resources available on their model, including a series of videos and articles on each aspect of the model, full documentation of their internal policies, and a peer network of organizations working on making their own governance more democratic.

Haber calls a third model the Hub and Spoke model, also known as a Counter-Institution or Affinity Group model. Autonomous, self-managed groups engage in a limited amount of coordination through a consensus-based central collective body. The spoke groups may be defined by program area or geography, and the Board is just one circle among many. There’s no particular support entity for this form, which many organizations have come to on their own, but Haber guessed it is in pretty widespread use among organizations that emphasize autonomy for volunteers in local chapters to drive their own activities.

A Swarm organization — Image by Michael Haber

The fourth model, Swarm Organizations, is based on a sort of fractal structure of teams consisting of just a few people — no more than precisely seven under the design of its original creator, Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge — defined around an open list of tasks that anyone can take up in a self-organizing way. In Falkvinge’s words, “A swarm organization is a decentralized, collaborative effort of volunteers… built by a small core of people that construct a scaffolding of go-to people, enabling a large number of volunteers to cooperate on a common goal.” In the US, the swarm model is used by large movement-building organizations like Sunrise and Movimiento Cosecha. Cosecha describes their structure this way: “once three people decide to join Cosecha, they can form a circle and get full support from the movement. As long as they follow our basic principles and vision, circles act autonomously and make the decisions that affect their work.”

So how does an organization choose the right structure? Haber offered some points to consider. First, who is going to be doing the work? Volunteer organizations might work better as Swarm or Hub and Spoke organizations, while the Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit or Sociocratic model might be a better fit for staff-driven organizations. Next, how hierarchical or egalitarian do you want to be, and crucially, how much time and effort do you want to put into this internal structure work?

“It is way easier to go online, download some nonprofit form bylaws, and send in a piece of paper to New York State, than spending six months talking about this stuff,” Haber said, so consider whether it’s worth it for you. “How much does your vision of organizing social change involve internal justice and internal democracy, and how much of it doesn’t?” Well-designed structures are a very worthy thing for groups to explore, but it’s also easy for groups to get sucked into model development at the expense of the work they really want to do, so there is a balance for each organization to find.

Don’t get hung up on terminology or definitions.

Haber concluded with some best practices for organizations, including:

Don’t get hung up on terminology or definitions. Define what your words mean for yourselves rather than trying to find just the right one.

Whatever your structure, be sure you have a solid approach to carrying out the bottom line legal responsibilities. Have a solid and transparent mechanism for monitoring money flows and procedures for managing confidential information. Hold at least one meeting per year of whatever your legal board is, to oversee the overall activities of the organization, and make sure that board is reasonably informed of all the decisions that get taken.

Plan ahead for growth. Ask yourselves, “what happens if we suddenly brought in $300,000, if we suddenly had 50 volunteers?” This can happen, especially with activist organizations that are responding to on-the-ground priorities.

And Haber’s final note: all the good structure in the world is no substitute for strong relationships and an organizational culture of mutual respect, solidarity, and caring.

After Haber spoke, Micah from Good Work Institute shared a little about the process they are going through as they transition to a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit. “We started having discussions about how we really live the values we are trying to see into the world,” Micah said. “For us that meant we need to change how we share power.” They began searching, came across SELC’s model and said, “We can do this.” At the same time, GWI’s Executive Director announced that he was stepping down. “Why don’t all of you be Executive Director? Why don’t we not have an Executive Director?” Micah recalls him asking.

Micah speaking on GWI’s transition

So the GWI staff began a process of methodically working through SELC’s well-documented policies, considering and revising them to fit GWI’s needs and values. Micah acknowledged that he is generally no great fan of working on policies. But, he said, “All of us realize that if you’re really trying to do something different, even with the best of intentions, this hierarchical system is really all we know.” He sees the policies as a crucial support as they build a whole new organizational culture. “Working on the policies also became a practice for how we are going to step up, how we are going to share power, how we are going to go around in a circle so that everyone’s voice can get heard,” he added.

Like SELC, GWI has set up a General Circle made up of all staff. From there, “all of our actual work breaks down into many different circles,” Micah said, including program circles, internal operations circles, and an internal learning circle. “Many of us are on many different ones, and each of those circles operates the way that it needs to.” Circles are set up to be as autonomous as possible, but when they find themselves bumping up against something that impacts the mission or resources of the whole organization, then “this conversation has to go back up to the General Circle, to everybody.” They are also working on documenting the process as they go, and the Communications Circle is working on how they can share with other organizations.

Micah emphasized the importance of radical trust as they work, and what they are calling enthusiastic consent. Once consent is given, “it doesn’t actually mean you have to be enthusiastic, you can not love an idea,” he said. “But when I give consent, I’m going to give it enthusiastically because I am a part of this team, and collectively we hold this, so I’m in, I’m in wholly.”

At the end of the evening, we asked everybody to share with us the most valuable thing they learned. By far the most common answer was some variation on: “alternative structures actually are possible, and they exist right now in many organizations.” Yes! When I started Commonwealth Hudson Valley, one of my main ambitions was simply this: to stretch our collective imagination of what is possible, and to feed our imaginations with living examples that we can learn from. It was really inspiring to see that process in action that night.

Another question we asked was whether folks were interested in more events on this topic, and support for their own work. The answer was an enthusiastic yes, with calls for deeper dives into specific skills and structures, requests for peer and expert support, and suggestions to create a networking group or even a Council of local nonprofit organizations.

As our working group discussed next steps this week, it occurred to me that there are really two aspects of moving towards a more shared leadership way of working. There are the organizational structures Haber talked about, and the policies that define the nitty-gritty of how they will work. And then there are the practices of sharing power: conducting meetings in rounds, to hear everyone’s questions, ideas, and concerns; beginning to practice making decisions, where appropriate, by consent or consensus and exploring how that changes the decisions that get made; and starting to inquire about who really needs to make which decisions, and where and when decision-making power can be devolved to the folks actually carrying out the work. These practice-shifting steps are things any organization can start doing in small ways, well in advance of tackling any kind of changes in structure and policies.

The working group will soon be sending out a survey to help further define next steps. You can join that email list here, if you haven’t already signed up at one of the events. Meanwhile, the event video, courtesy of Radio Kingston, is available here, and you can download Haber’s paper, which describes each model in more depth, here.