Formerly the preserve of executive teams and department heads, a growing number of nonprofits have pushed decision-making processes toward the edges of their organizations—where staff interact closely with stakeholders. Transferring this power can make organizations more responsive to community needs and changing circumstances while helping individuals maximize their talent and contributions inside their organizations.
Accomplishing this transfer of power isn’t always easy, especially in organizational cultures used to operating in a more hierarchical fashion, where top executives typically make decisions more independently.
Bridgespan recently spoke to three nonprofit leaders about their organizations’ efforts to build greater inclusivity into their decision-making processes. These organizations differ markedly in size and focus, but all have found measures of success through deliberate attention to transparency and inclusivity in their decision-making practices. Their efforts include enlisting the communities they serve in decision making, co-developing solutions with frontline staff, redefining organizational success to build inclusion, and empowering staff to learn from failure.
Enlist your community in decision making
With four full-time staff, one part-time employee, and six contractors, ImmSchools is a 100 percent immigrant-led organization that partners with K-12 schools and educators to provide a variety of services to undocumented immigrants. ImmSchools’ Co-founder and CEO Viri Carrizales says the young organization decided early on that the best way to serve its stakeholders was to listen to them. “We never rush into a decision,” Carrizales says. “The first thing we do is reach out to our community to hear how members think a decision will affect them. Even though there are only a handful of us at ImmSchools, this has enabled us to adjust quickly to sudden change.”
For example, when COVID-19 forced ImmSchools to cancel their in-person, school-based programs, the organization used the first few days after the cancellations to connect with undocumented families about their needs. What they learned was expected given that these families were left out of any federal support programs: they prioritized their immediate needs as food and shelter for their children. “A student cannot learn if they're feeling hungry or sick,” Carrizales says. As a result, ImmSchools set about raising and deploying almost $200,000 in cash assistance to families.
Improve design and strategy by empowering frontline staff
Medic Mobile is 10 years into its work building open-source software for community health workers who provide door-to-door care across 14 countries. The organization’s staff consists of teammates who live in 32 cities. “So, we’re pretty much distributed everything,” says CEO Josh Nesbit. In order to operate in a more decentralized way, Medic has developed human-centered design methods for frontline teams to build the product and iterate within individual systems. “We needed processes, running every day at the edges of our operations, taking into account diverse, local, lived experiences,” he says.
In 2019, Medic open-sourced 10 years’ worth of projects, and this had implications for the organization’s role and strategy. As a result, Nesbit spent six months in Africa and Asia embedded with his teams and community health workers, listening to inform the next phase for Medic. “You have to believe that inclusive and participatory processes will lead to better decisions for your mission,” Nesbit says. “In the future, open-source software development will be guided by and accountable to communities and the people who deliver services.”
Redefine organizational success and embrace a learning mindset
When Omar Butler took over as the CEO of New Door Ventures, he succeeded someone who had been in the role for 16 years and who had relied exclusively on a close-knit leadership team to make decisions. New Door Ventures enjoyed a solid reputation for success in its work of providing paid jobs, skills training, education, and individualized support for young adults, but that didn’t prevent Butler from concluding that many frontline employees felt disempowered by the way leadership made important decisions.
To change that perception and make employees more involved, Butler decided to redefine success at New Door Ventures. He says he did this “not only from a programmatic standpoint, but also a human capital standpoint: how well you support and develop your staff . . . all the things that don't show up when you talk to funders or donors or create your videos that live on your website.”
Butler is slowly leading organizational change, beginning with broadened participation in strategic retreats to include all staff. “I think that retreats should happen across your organization, not just with your leadership team,” says Butler. “The best way to learn to flex the new muscle of decision making is getting in the regular habit of reflecting and working through issues together as a team,” he says. “That’s what retreats are for.”
Butler believes he’ll know he has empowered his whole organization to make effective decisions when staff stop reflexively looking to him for all of the answers. He also knows that it will be a learning process, with both failures and successes, which will require close attention. To get people started, Butler is taking care to hand off power for lower-impact decisions and reminding staff that being empowered to make decisions means making, and owning, their mistakes.
“The worst decision is the one you didn’t make,” Butler says. “You may not make the right decision, but I think making the decision allows you to assess it, reflect, and course-correct it if that’s what you need to do.”
He adds, “We constantly tell ourselves we’re still learning and don't have every answer. Sometimes, it is by coming together and figuring things out that we get to the best answer — for that moment. It’s okay to fail if you learn from it.”
Dave Moore is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about purpose-driven people and organizations. He lives in Lee, New Hampshire.