7 Ways to Create a More Democratic Nonprofit

by Cat Johnson with input from Chris Tittle, Director of Organizational Resilience at the Sustainable Economies Law Center

For many people, going to work involves a lot of doing what the boss says. Worker cooperatives provide an alternative to this top-down model by extending ownership of a company to the employees, but there are ways to bring democracy into your workplace or organization without formally structuring yourself as a cooperative.

Our friends at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) are Jedis when it comes to workplace democracy and putting the new economy into practice in a nonprofit setting. They’ve adopted policies that distribute ownership of projects, enhance the quality of life of the staff, expand community access to legal services, and empower grassroots legal experts.

SELC integrates Holacracy into its model through its weekly meeting structure and the way the organization is divided into overlapping “Circles” made up of smaller groups of staff who have discretion to make certain decisions about that Circle without bringing a full proposal to the whole staff. This gives clarity to staff roles, creates distributed authority, and contributes to the democratic structure of the organization. SELC’s policies can be modified to bring organizational democracy to any organization.

SELC published their policies with a Creative Commons license so we can all benefit and learn from the (incredibly detailed) work they’ve put into them. Here are seven of our favorite ways to help create a more democratic nonprofit.

1. 30 Hour Work Week Policy

Forget the 50, 60, 70-plus hour work week. SELC staffers strive to work 30 hour weeks, ideally leaving them time for living, studying the law as legal apprentices, or taking on side projects. As their organizational document states, “SELC recognizes that a shorter work week has many positive impacts on the economy, planet, and human wellbeing. We believe that when people have time to pursue activities outside of their main work, they are more likely to invest time in activities such as cooking, civic engagement, caring for family members, and taking public transportation, rather than spending money on cheap consumer goods, personal vehicles, and other time-saving conveniences.”

2. Equal Compensation Policy

Each SELC staff member makes $46,500, which is both the average wage in Oakland, CA (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and a living wage (according to the Economic Policy Institute). Combined with their 30 Hour Work Week Policy, staff that need to earn more to support a family or pay off student debt can supplement their income with other opportunities, such as running a private law practice. SELC also has full financial transparency about how they use funds, the organization’s growth, and fundraising goals. The organization’s compensation principles are based on the following goals, which are elaborated on in their compensation policy.

  • To create a more just society
  • To expand access to legal services
  • To create jobs
  • To do work in service of our mission
  • To have a balanced relationship with our donors
  • To create a sense of “ownership” among SELC staff
  • To focus on the non-monetary benefits that SELC provides to its staff
  • To be the change we want to see in the world

3. Time Off Policy

Who hasn’t needed time off from work and struggled to get it? To maximize employee wellbeing and optimize individual autonomy and collective accountability, SELC has a “free time off” policy that seeks to “balance the individual needs of each staff member with the needs of the organization as a whole by providing a mechanism for self-regulation, group feedback, and transparent accounting.” As SELC’s policy states, “Each core staff member...has the opportunity and responsibility to take as much paid time off as they see fit, so long as he or she can fulfill his or her roles in and responsibilities to the organization.”

Chris Tittle, SELC's Director of Organizational Resilience, explains that staff members are more effective at their work when they lead a balanced life.

"We try to make this process as transparent as possible so staff are both encouraged to take at least some time off, and prevented from taking advantage of the policy," he says. "We are playing with this concept of our free time and work time as a collectively managed commons that can be democratically managed for the long-term sustainability of each of us as individuals and the organization as a whole.”

The SELC staff

4. Boundaries on Sending Internal Emails

Another way SELC implements principles for management of the commons is placing clear boundaries on when the staff sends emails to one another. As their policy states, based on “a growing body of empirical evidence suggesting that pressure to constantly respond to emails lowers worker wellbeing and productivity, SELC has decided to voluntarily limit use of internal emails between certain hours. SELC core staff will not send emails to other staff members Monday - Friday, 8pm - 7am, and on Weekends.”

Since their flexible work schedule enables staff to work remotely on certain days of the week, the policy is not intended to dictate when staff can be working, just when staff can safely close their inbox without fear of missing an important internal email.

5. Professional Development Policy

The health and growth of SELC depends on the personal growth and development of its staff. This is defined as “any learning activity intended to improve or deepen a core staff member’s skills, knowledge, abilities and behavior as they relate to their present or future role at SELC.” To facilitate this, the organization earmarks funding toward professional development that is split evenly among core staff. Each staff member can use these funds toward personal and professional growth and development.

6. Internal Policy Proposals

Any SELC staff can propose to add or change internal policies during weekly staff meetings. Proposals are brought for staff discussion and refinement before they are adopted or rejected following a highly structured process that ensures everyone’s questions, concerns, and reflections are heard. The person bringing the proposal must address any questions or concerns brought by the rest of the staff, and the proposal will only pass if there are no objections. However, unlike a pure consensus process, staff can only object if they feel the “the proposal will move SELC backward in its mission or harm the organization,” allowing decisions to be made rapidly and revisited as necessary.

7. Hiring Policy

SELC’s hiring policy is a reflection of its core values and high standards. The following qualities are ones they look for in new hires and they “think very carefully before hiring a core staff member that is lacking in any of the following”:

  • Kindness and warmth
  • Strong commitment to economic, racial, and environmental justice
  • Strong written and oral communication skills
  • Good time management and task management
  • Diligence and attention to detail
  • Honesty, integrity, and humility
  • Sense of humor
  • Tech savvy or quick to learn new technologies
  • Independent, self-motivated
  • Self-confident
  • Works well with others
  • Flexible and open-minded
  • Works well in a variety of settings (remotely, office, events, legal cafes, meetings)
  • Willing to take on a diversity of roles within the organization, per holacracy’s dynamic system of assigning roles
  • Not strongly driven by a desire to get fame and attention
  • Sees work with SELC as more than a job; sees it as a way to live what they love
  • Values the “unconventional” nature and outlook of the organization, including SELC’s mission, communication styles, governance, and operational structure.
  • Socio-economic diversity: As SELC grows, we will aim to create a socio-economically diverse staff.

If one staff member believes that hiring a particular person would harm the organization or take it backward, then SELC does not hire them. Prior to hiring someone, SELC looks for ways to work with the potential hire on a temporary basis to feel out whether they would be a good fit for the organization.

Visit SELC's New Economy in Practice policy document to learn more about this remarkable organization.

The following is a recent webinar SELC hosted on Worker Self Directed Nonprofits. SELC has also created a Google group for Worker Self Directed Nonprofits

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Employment law is a complicated thing. Consult an attorney who specializes in employment law to help guide you through any of these steps you may have questions or concerns about.

Top photo: yardenxanthe (CC-BY-20). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

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