Bust up the traditional nonprofit for distributed leadership

I think Cleveland Owns should adopt a distributed-leadership governance structure. Let’s explore 🙂

To truly fulfill Cleveland Owns’ mission to build wealth and power through collective ownership, I think our year-old organization must transition away from today’s leadership structure, where lots of resources and power are concentrated in one person (me) and in a small group of leaders on the Board, to a leadership structure that’s much broader, that involves many more people with more skills and experiences.


Strengthen Cleveland Owns

  • Have a clear base of support for Cleveland Owns that will sustain its mission beyond the tenure of any one person
  • Build a more resilient organization that’s not dependent on one person or just a small group of people
  • Address the skepticism I have and others may have about the intentions of Cleveland Owns and about the intentions I have (e.g., is he doing this because of a white savior complex)
  • Bring more resources to the table to support the org (e.g., connections, ideas, money)
  • Make more connections between people who care about coops in the city


Unlock new ways to reach our mission

  • Model the cooperative governance we encourage the groups we incubate to adopt
  • Raise up leadership from people who are not white men
  • Resist the white savior complex central to many nonprofits in Cleveland
  • Learn new skills about how to run democratic organizations
  • Demonstrate there’s an alternative way to run an org


Options Dependencies
Create board seats for representatives from willing coops Cleveland Owns has incubated Board agrees to take on members from cooperative we’ve incubated
Establish a clear standard for how developed a coop must be to qualify for a board seat
Members of cooperatives are even interested in joining the board of Cleveland Owns
Coops will need to have fair process to select a representative for the Cleveland Owns board
Coop members on the CO board will need to be actively engaged, and communicate back to their coop what’s going on
Create a non-voting advisory board that’s open to the community Enough people (of diverse backgrounds) want to join CO advisory board
We effectively communicate the opportunity
Create structure and enough stakes in the game for people to want to stay involved (aka don’t waste people’s time)
Have a clear standard for what information is fair to share with advisory board and what is not
Listen to the group of creating meaningful opportunities for them to get involved
Design programming that meet people where they’re at, at various levels of knowledge about coops
Cocreate programming that is engaging, meaningful, and create reciprocal exchange of info and ideas
Create a non-voting advisory board made up of people who are members in the coops Cleveland Owns has incubated Same as above, just more refined, plus since people on the advisory board will all have a knowledge of coops
Keep our current board structure and operating structure For this option to produce some of the goals above, we’ll need to develop a strategy that builds a much broader base of leadership and support
Close the organization Consent from the board
Commit to hiring coop members as Cleveland Owns staff (when applicable) Approval from board
Qualified, interested candidates
Replace our ED with a group of people working part-time We’d need to have enough money to pay a full salary, split between a few people
Find, hire qualified candidates
Cut work in a way that creates clear delineations between new part-time staff

I think there are many more way to do this I don’t know. At our upcoming board meeting, I’m going to ask the board to brainstorm ways we can expand this list, so we can consider more options.


It’s also a chance for the board to reflect on this idea and to see if they’re on fire for it as I am.


Of these options my favorite is to create board seats for members of the coops. I like that it’s concrete governance power that turns Cleveland Owns into more of a membership organization, rather than a board-led, non-membership org. It builds connections between the incubator and the incubatee, and between coops, who may otherwise not have structured opportunities to get connected.



Reflection script


Thanks everyone for the comments. These are especially helpful because this is a live decision. In fact, we’re going to discuss this at our Board meeting Sunday. I’m bringing some of what I wrote in this post to the group directly.


Here’s a good lesson on the need to be precise in describing what we’re talking about. I imagined this is about distributed governance, rather than distributed management. The question of management is tricky, since I’m the only paid staff. I think we can wait on tackling that.


Our board members are unpaid. The time it takes to be a board member is substantial barrier. We don’t have a plan to pay board members – I think we’d need to change our bylaws to do so. We could. And we could also find lots of other perks for folks involved that could eliminate barriers and allow more people to seriously consider joining the board.


We’ve enshrined a commitment to a diverse board in our bylaws. I’m not sure what accountability mechanisms we have if we miss that target. It’s also a fuzzy target – we’ve never defined quotas, for example.


The effort to address skepticism goal is an important one. It’s not the only benefit this decision could bring to the org. But I certainly think being able to say something like “our board is made up of membership orgs we’ve helped found’ conveys a real sense of democratic control, and diminishes doubt this is a vanity project. I’m thinking of places like Coop Power and Cooperative Energy Futures, two member-driven orgs with management that, from afar at least, seems accountable to their membership.


Interestingly I’m also grappling with worker-directed nonprofits, a model put forward by the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), designed to bring the principles of democratic management from the worker-coop world into the nonprofits space. That’s another spin on what democractic leadership looks like that winds up in a different direction: A board with much less power, and very decentralized leadership in the workplace. I can imagine us heading in that direction when/if we have staff of 2+.


Overall, this exercise has been quite helpful. It offered just enough structure for me to think about this more than I would have otherwise. Writing helped turn that thinking into something I will share with my board.


On our call Carrie raised doubts about this method. suggesting that it strips away emotion. That hasn’t been my experience. I much better having gone through this because I’ve turned over this issue enough. I haven’t made a decision. That will still involve more convos with the board and trusted friends and reflection on my own feeling about this. But it was a good start.

4 thoughts on “Bust up the traditional nonprofit for distributed leadership”

  1. I’ve spent a few months at work trying to generate options for greater community ownership of our progams, starting with what an advisory board could look like, so I appreciate your refelction.

    Are board members paid? A key factor we have considered is how the intention to broaden representation often entails shifting the institutional habits (like meeting times, paying students for time off work, helping with transportation costs, offering childcare) beyond those that facilitate participation by economically stable individuals who can add responsibilities without major sacrifice. I’m sure it’s a different context but I’m wondering as you talk to your board and consider what it would take to make membership on the board accessible to a broader range of folks the kinds of modifications you might make to current habits.


  2. Hi Jonathan! I applaud the commitment to reflect your mission in your leadership structure. During our Monday night call, it sounded like the organization is in the process of making some key decisions around where to focus resources for projects and programming; how does your decision outlined here influence or time with the other decisions underway? What options can be combined from those you’ve listed? Would you be willing to invite leaders with perspective who may challenge aspects of Cleveland Owns’ work or priorities in an effort to select a truly diverse set of stakeholders? Is there a reason for listing only coop members as potential future staff hires? Would you expect to establish governance criteria to ensure the diversity and diversity leadership sustain, and are not one-off decisions? What’s the best way to memorialize and stay accountable to this governance model, if so?


  3. this line sticks out for me: “Address the skepticism I have and others may have about the intentions of Cleveland Owns and about the intentions I have (e.g., is he doing this because of a white savior complex)”

    Is this the real issue you are looking to address?

    Most of the other items sound nice in theory, but make me wonder — are there other folks who really “own” the organization and vision enough to carry it forward?

    Do you have 1-2 others who are ready to transition to shared leadership model (Co-directors, etc) with you? What might it take to get others on the path to owning the organization with you? What exactly does the first step look like with those individuals?

    The transition we are making at CPA has been really good. And it has also involved a lot more time.

    Are there trade-offs that you make with regards to agility / ability to adapt quickly to new opportunities in this kind of distributed leadership model?

    Thanks for showing up and wrestling with a real question and decision here.


  4. Hi Jonathan! I love the consistency and coherence that you’re showing in this post. It makes sense that if you’re incubating coops, that you have the experience of being a coop yourself.

    I guess in this case, I’m tempted to point out priorities and focus. Your organization is very young and you’re currently tackling 6 projects in which you are the central figure.

    This undertaking you’re evaluating is clearly a highly strategic, time-consuming and energy-draining endeavor. I’m wondering if now is the right time. Would it make sense to have a track record of being a powerful steward for your current stakeholders (by crushing your current projects or some of their significant milestones) before asking them to commit to joining you in any capacity? Not trying to nudge you in one way or another. Just wondering.

    If you’re convinced now is the right time, how can you set the process in motion in a way that is compatible with all the other demands on you and your organization? Do you have clear candidates you can groom quickly to rise to the occasion of progressively more distributed leadership? How many of them belong to the communities you’re trying to serve? What can they bring to the table besides more seats? Maybe one of them has a particular talent? or maybe has already established strong relationships with the community you’re trying to serve?

    Onward! I love where this is going!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: