Nonprofit Management and Workplace Democracy

By Rebecca Bauen for Nonprofit Quarterly

A push for changing nonprofit practice is gaining momentum. Some of this push is coming from younger staff expressing their desire for greater voice and power. Some is from new leaders of color stepping into executive roles and wanting organizations to be more inclusive and empowering for all staff. Some is from leaders who recognize that an engaged and empowered workforce increases the impact of the work. I have seen all these forces active in the organization where I work. I also hear of them from my colleagues in the field. What stands out to me is the gap between the desire for new ways of working and the skills and practical tools to do it.

Absent sector-wide practices, some nonprofits are turning to systems that aim to flatten workplace hierarchy entirely or ratings systems that help assess organizational health. One model often overlooked—the worker-owned cooperative—offers the benefit of having grappled with questions of participation, management, and control for decades. And I believe nonprofits can learn from this experience.

Worker cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by the people who work in them. Workers serve on the board of directors and wear their “owner hat” while doing so. Workers also serve in management, wearing their “management hat” when doing that. In larger worker cooperatives, the organizational chart may look a lot like a conventional corporation. However, managers are beholden to the board, itself composed of worker-owners.

In smaller cooperatives, often operating as collectives, worker-owners organize management committees to carry out operational tasks, which report to the entire group. In short, workers, board members, and managers are aligned because they are one and the same.

Can worker cooperative tools be used to create and reinforce similar alignment among the disparate stakeholders in a nonprofit setting?

Read more from Rebecca Bauen, DAWI Training and Education Director, on Nonprofit Quarterly