If we are not prepared to govern, we are not prepared to win
A just transition to a deep democracy expands our imaginations for what is possible
Several years ago, when I first read Movement Generations’ Just Transition zine, From Banks and Tanks to Caring and Cooperation, this line really stood out to me: “If we are not prepared to govern, we are not prepared to win.” Back then, I interpreted governance as being relevant to the domains of our communities, cities, counties, state and nation. While workplace is referenced later in the passage, I only imagined this to apply to for-profit corporations, and didn’t pause long enough to think about how it could apply to my own nonprofit organization.
Fast forward to the present day. As Justice Funders becomes its own 501(c)3, we are intentionally building an organization whose culture and structure embody the values and principles of Just Transition including shared leadership, democratic decision-making and self-governance. This is the result of an 18-month long organizational development journey that involved both self-reflection as a staff as well as insights from our stakeholders who participated in a 10th anniversary evaluation project to identify our strengths, assess our contributions and offer recommendations for how to have the greatest impact moving forward.
Over the last six months, we have applied these learnings and insights by undergoing a series of organizational shifts:
- Co-Directorship Model: Last summer, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano joined our team as Deputy Director. As of January 1, we shifted to a co-director leadership model in which we are collaboratively leading the organization.
- Circle Governing Structure: Every team member participates in two out of our five cross-departmental circles that are charged with the various aspects of our organization’s internal management: Governance, Regenerative Finance, Program Strategy & Cohesion, People Centered Systems, and Organizational Culture and Development.
- Democratic Decision-making process: Each member of the team has the opportunity to review, give feedback and then vote on major organizational decisions that are proposed by the circles so that everything from our strategy to our systems to our budget are co-created.
- Worker self-directed nonprofit: All of these shifts are building toward Justice Funders becoming a worker self-directed nonprofit, defined by the Sustainable Economies Law Center as “an organization in which all workers have the power to influence the realms and programs in which they work, the conditions of their workplace, their own career paths, and the direction of the organization as a whole.”
When Lorenzo and I started planning these shifts last fall, we hoped that Justice Funders would become more sustainable, that we could endure a potential leadership transition, and that everyone on staff would learn how to become capable and responsible stewards of the organization. While managing the organization’s internal functions has been a lot of additional work on top of everyone’s primary work, I have been struck by the level of engagement and spirit of shared responsibility from our team members as we practice new ways of governing ourselves as an organization.
Furthermore, the practice of a just transition from a “power over” hierarchy to a deep democracy has not only strengthened our individual and collective governance muscles, it has had the multiplying effect of expanding our imaginations for what is possible.
For me, this expansion has meant a fundamentally different way to think about my role as a leader.
I have been in an executive director role for the majority of the last twenty years. While I have always believed in the work of the organizations I have led, and cared deeply for those I work with, I haven’t always loved my job. There is so much about the role that is the antithesis of what I personally believe: one position having ultimate decision-making power, being bound by organizational policies that I did not create but had to enforce, carrying the weight and responsibility of assessing and approving everything from organizational strategy to office supplies.
And yet, until recently, I did not know of another way.
My leadership and ability to govern has been confined to the boundaries created by the nonprofit industrial complex rooted in the extractive economic system and white supremacy culture.
My visions for transformative change were often blunted by well-meaning peers who cast doubt on my ability to receive funding for work that pushed the limits of a funder’s imagination. While staff members valued transparency, under the constraints of time, pressure, commitments and expectations, our internal processes fell victim to opaque decision-making based on hierarchy for the sake of expediency. Despite mutual appreciation and regard for each other’s expertise, programs became siloed as team members worked past the limits of their capacity to meet income goals, and relied on me to facilitate collaboration. Even if I as the executive director had a vision for another way of being, I did not have the organizational structure in place to reinforce a different set of values, which allowed the default operating system to prevail.
With these experiences in hindsight, I feel energized that Justice Funders is transforming into a worker self-directed nonprofit in which every person on our team is collectively taking responsibility for the people, programs, and resources of our organization.
Now, all twelve of us are tasked with building an organization in which all of us can thrive. Together, we are creating personnel policies that allow every person to feel seen, cared for and show up as their full selves. We now have people-centered systems to facilitate processes for shared stewardship and governance, which has increased team members’ connections to each other as well as opportunities for program integration. By design, internal communications flow in multiple directions because more people are involved in different aspects of the organization. And, my role is both more defined and sustainable.
What is even more meaningful about these organizational shifts is that they are expressions of the kinds of shifts we are working toward in philanthropy and in our world: the democratization of power, the care of the collective and the self-determination of all.
In a recent interview, Najari Smith, executive director of Rich City Rides said, “The work place is often one of the most undemocratic environments people experience, yet it’s the place where people spend the majority of their time.” When I heard this, I thought back to that line from “Banks and Tanks,” “If we are not prepared to govern, we are not prepared to win,” and suddenly understood in a deeper way how our anemic experience with democracy hinders our imagination about what is possible.
Our allies at the Center for Story-based Strategy say that “Imagination builds power.”
I believe that if we expand our collective imagination to “rewrite the rules,” we will have the power to build and govern a world that allows all of us to thrive.
This is the vision of the world that I am fighting for, the win I am preparing for.
As my colleague, Mario Lugay likes to remind us, “None of us is born with the politics we have now, and part of our continued work is to remember and be grateful for those whose support shaped who we are becoming.” Thus, I want to acknowledge that this journey reflects 18-months of organizational work, focus, and dedication. Our organization’s journey has been guided by kiran nigam of Fortify Community Health. We have learned so much from The Whitman Institute and the Resist Foundation who have generously shared their wisdom and experiences with us. The entire Justice Funders staff team, past and present has contributed to where the organization is now. This direction has also been informed by feedback we received from interviews with 20 movement and philanthropic stakeholders that was synthesized by Nadine Wilmot in 2020.