When I founded Pangea Legal Services in late 2012, I set out to model it after the Buenos Aires factory cooperatives I had witnessed while studying abroad in Argentina. In these coops, self-management, mutuality, respect, and dignity were the norm. In 2017, I finally proposed removing my executive director (ED) title. A transformative power shift followed. But my vision of shared power and ownership was not easily won. It ran counter to the conventional wisdom that only strict organizational hierarchies confer visibility, trust, and legitimacy. As a leader of color, I also had to unlearn a tendency to equate professional titles with respect and a sense of self-worth.
When I proposed my title change, I felt both nervous and excited. My colleagues voiced their opinions and questions. Should we rotate the person in the ED role regularly? Should we get rid of the title altogether? I thought that having no ED would further our collective governance goals and showcase to the world the transformative work we were doing internally. Of eight staff, two colleagues and I voiced our desire to remove the ED title.
One of our board members said, “I’m holding on to the table because I’m about to fall out of my chair.” Most of our co-workers believed it was important to keep the title because we were a new organization and needed to build credibility with funders and partners; funders tend to build relationships and trust with EDs, and they had just started to do so with me. My colleagues thought my title would safeguard these critical functions. In the end, we decided to keep the title for the time being—and to my surprise, even though I had made the proposal, part of me felt relief. I wouldn’t have to explain to my Iranian family why I wasn’t the big-shot ray-ees (boss) anymore.
That is when I realized that I had not reconciled my ego with my values and the values I wanted Pangea to uphold. I was raised by a working-class, immigrant, single mother who modeled how to work hard and climb the hierarchical ladder of success. This hierarchical conditioning is especially prevalent among immigrants and BIPOC leaders like me, in part due to the pressures imposed on us by colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. We often feel the need to overcompensate for the negative views people have of us, working extra hard to integrate into society in a positive light. This kind of labor is not required of people with race and class privilege. I had been conditioned all my life to chase the positive feedback loop of visibility and status. Attaching some of my professional self-worth to my title was second nature.
But this is not who I wanted to be.
I thought back to the workers at a garment cooperative I visited in Buenos Aires in 2004. One worker, Alberto, gave me a factory tour and invited me to meetings. I remember a group of workers in jeans and comfortable clothes sitting in a circle in the middle of a huge hall next to factory machines. Their conversation and treatment of each other were humane and dignified. Over delicious alfajores at a cafe, Alberto described how his coworkers made decisions by consensus and rotated leadership roles. They placed no importance on titles, personal gain, and status. Rather, they focused on people’s needs and their collective wellbeing. Those are my values.
This form of leadership, known as democratic or participatory governance, is proven to work, be more resilient to economic downturns, and be more efficient than top-down corporate structures. I wanted to emulate such leadership at Pangea. I did not want to emulate corporate structures, where too often inequity, secrecy, and worker exclusion from important decisions are the norm.
Although we chose to keep the ED title, we explored other ways of implementing a shared leadership structure. We extended the title to a colleague, Bianca, who was already doing a lot of ED work. We researched other democratically governed nonprofits and political organizations. Although we didn’t find any that had no executive director, we learned about various ways that organizations distributed authority. Our key role models were AORTA, Sustainable Economies Law Center, and Fortify Community Health. Our work was also informed by Frederic Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, which deconstructs the myth that collectively managed organizations have no structure, organization, or leadership.
A year later, in 2018, we instituted a “hub” model of organizational management, where staff self-organized to co-lead internal administration and development committees, including finances, communications, human resources, governance, and operations hubs. Our hub model helped the organization become more high-functioning, well structured, and leaderful. The financial and operational outcomes of this transition strengthened our commitment to building a high-performing, values-based workplace.
Two years later, we voted to remove the executive titles altogether. Leading up to the vote, we had multiple conversations that underscored our readiness to rightsize our ED titles with our actual authorities and processes. When I returned from parental leave in 2019, our governance hub, comprised of two white male colleagues and myself, welcomed me with an invitation to remove my ED title. My first reaction was, “WTF?!” Hello, feminist-POC-mother pride coupled with insecurities of losing organizational worth and value after being on 4.5 months of leave! Despite my push for this very transition, I felt the sting of being devalued.
I had poured all my heart and energy into building up the organization. For years, I researched, read, strategized, and talked about our organization with everyone I knew. I gained valuable skills and tools in a short amount of time. I had built power and authority. But I reminded myself that I had started this conversation and was driven by values of shared or rotational leadership. By this point, Bianca and I no longer had any executive power or final say over matters unless such say was delegated to us by the hubs. Our ED titles had become symbolic. My role and work would continue as before.
It took me working with a trusted therapist to understand my feelings and not feel ashamed of them. With help, I confronted my relationships with success, achievement, performance, authority, motherhood, and self-worth within the context of US culture and the counterculture I was cultivating in my organization. As I moved through my ego, what remained was a strong feeling of pride and accomplishment in my organization, my co-workers, and myself for pushing ourselves to the next level of democratic governance.
Even at this next level, however, we needed someone to keep a bird’s eye view of the organization. A significant amount of unnamed labor that Bianca and I did was not delegated to any of our hubs. This included proactively addressing staff needs, identifying gaps, acting on them, researching and presenting proposals to better the organization, fundraising (advocating in white spaces), and a great deal of other relational work. Ours was a clear example of the invisibilized yet crucial labor that is disproportionately carried out by women and gender non-conforming people of color to help organizations run well. Bianca and I continued to do some of this labor outside of the hubs before a full-time employee was hired to take on this work in May 2022. That invisible labor was essential in helping Pangea transition to a decentralized structure, and it will be key to maintaining it.
Pangea formally became a nonprofit with no ED in March 2020, and all staff (14 of us) took on the title of co-director. Although our roles, duties, and distributed leadership structure remained the same, staff ownership and accountability to the organization was elevated. For example, one employee who had never been involved in fundraising was empowered to secure a sizable grant for Pangea, at the time equivalent of one year’s salary. Distributing authority and living by our values has gone hand in hand with reaping economic benefits. Pangea’s financial standing and reserves are well over the industry standard for nonprofits.
Organizations don’t have to get rid of their ED titles to be inclusive and leaderful. But we should question and push back against traditional power structures and valuations of human time, labor, professional experience, and education if we are to live in a freer, more inclusive, mutually respectful, and equitable world. As adrienne maree brown says, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.” At the small scale, nonprofits can invest in creating a culture of respect, equity, and inclusion, modeling the kind of world we want to see in our larger communities and governments.
In the next 10 years, I envision inclusive and participatory governance practices becoming the norm in the nonprofit industry, and hopefully beyond.
Here are 11 tips for any ED or leadership team curious about pursuing a similar journey:
- Honor your personal feelings and internal conflicts. Follow kiran nigam’s advice to “examine your personal relationships to structures of authority.” My feelings stemmed from my ego. Taking time to process this helped.
- Try transferring a few major organizational responsibilities to other staff. Give them final decision-making authority (over your own vote) and let the rest of the staff know about it. Also, give them structures and resources to support their leadership.
- Research some of the different ways shared leadership and horizontal governance can work in practice. Talk with staff at organizations like Pangea Legal Services, Community Resource Initiative, Sustainable Economies Law Center, Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance: AORTA, RVC Seattle, and Fortify Community Health.
- Read this NPQ article and consider talking with the leaders referenced in it about how they share their leadership and titles.
- Facilitate a conversation about power in your organization. Involve everyone who is directly impacted by your governance structure, including staff (at all levels) and the board. If your organization is larger than 12 people, consider conversations in smaller breakout groups.
- Write collective governance and shared leadership in as goals for your organization’s strategic plan.
- Don’t try to do it all overnight. Give everyone involved time to process and talk amongst each other and with others outside of the organization.
- Try a step-by-step approach. For example, try removing the word “chief” if you have C-suite titles. Try out the executive director title instead. Or try out a shift from one executive director to a team of two or more ED’s.
- Consider a six-month pilot project rather than a permanent change.
- Recruit two or more people with democratic governance experience to your board.
- Hire an experienced coach or facilitator to guide your journey. There are many excellent coaches within the Nonprofit Democracy Network.