Unlocking Potential: Collective Leadership in Nonprofits

Adopting collective leadership can help your nonprofit create a more inclusive, efficient, and flexible organizational structure.

Unlocking Potential: Collective Leadership in Nonprofits
17 mins read

How one nonprofit added more voices to its leadership to better represent the people it serves.

Just over one year ago, the nonprofit at which I work did a total tear-down and rebuild of our leadership structure. We envisioned a new leadership rooted in shared responsibility and authority, with more staff members involved in the directing of the organization.

Our goals were to spread decision-making roles to more staff members, add more seniority levels, and amplify more voices internally. One year on, we now have a leadership team of more than a dozen people as well as an overall leadership structure of more than 20 people; I would cautiously say that the change has been a success—and a bumpy road at times.

This article provides a brief background on why and how we made a drastic change as well as offers tips for other organizations thinking about a similar shift.

Why did we make this change?

When people find out about our diffused leadership structure, they often ask how we get anything accomplished. Then they ask, “Why?”

The answer requires a bit of backstory about CAIR Coalition. As a nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants in government detention centers, the need for our help has increased significantly over the past decade. To meet this need, we have grown from a staff of 12 to more than 100. Along the way, we relied on a small “management team” to run the organization—usually four or five director-level staff members. While that size made sense for a smaller organization, it did not grow with us as a whole.

Were we doing ok as a management team? Sure.
Was the organization growing? Yes.
But could we do better? Absolutely.

The challenges resulting from a small management team should not be a surprise: transparency issues, lack of diverse voices, overloaded management staff (sometimes leading to hastily made decisions), and that pesky feeling of “us” versus “them” dividing staff and management.

On top of this, we were struggling to move forward our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) goals. Like many groups, this has been a major focus for us for the past several years. Our former management team was not only small, but it was also not representative of either our staff or our clients from a DEIB perspective. A top-down approach from this team was not the answer to how we do better.

We believed that moving towards a more collective leadership structure could begin to address these challenges. Collective leadership would help to:

  • Include more voices, especially of staff from underrepresented communities, in the decision-making process.
  • Increase retention by fostering a sense of shared ownership in the mission.
  • Share the load of leadership across more people to reduce hasty decisions.
  • Expand leadership expertise.
  • Offer more pathways for all staff to provide input.
  • Ensure that front-line staff issues are addressed instead of overlooked as not weighty enough for leadership.

What is collective leadership?

Collective leadership is not communal leadership. It is also not “Do what you are told.” Instead, it is “Who knows this area best? How can they help us make this decision?”

At its most basic, collective leadership is a management style in which authority and accountability are more broadly distributed to create spaces for more staff to participate in leadership functions. Instead of top-down decisions made by a few executives, decisions are made by teams or individuals with designated areas of responsibility.

The leadership of the organization is shared among many more people. Collective leadership features interconnected teams working together to run the organization efficiently. Collective leadership does not do away with structure; instead, it reimagines structures to leverage shared responsibility and staff insight.

There is not, however, one correct model of collective leadership. As with most management techniques, there are a range of options that need to be tailored to an organization’s size, mission, staff, etc. This range goes from the truly collective (with minimal hierarchy and common decision-making) to a more traditional hierarchical structure with more avenues for staff inclusion and input.

Whatever the particulars, collective leadership acknowledges that organizations are not monolithic systems and instead are comprised of many interconnected teams. Each team has its own area of expertise, and the teams already work together.

An HR team, for example, might work on policies with input from legal and client-facing staff, just as the finance team might also discuss the feasibility of new initiatives for client-facing programs.

The interaction of these team “webs” does not lend itself to traditional leadership’s hierarchal, top-down pyramid. Collective leadership, on the other hand, embraces the web and the expertise of the teams.

What does collective leadership look like in practice?

At CAIR Coalition, we wanted to be in the middle of the possible range of leadership structures. We spent a lot of time thinking about our own teams and how they interact (and who are the experts in which areas of our work).

The model we landed on includes the following components:

A Leadership Team

The Leadership Team includes 2 to 3 senior staff from each of our three client-facing programs; the executive and associate directors; the heads of HR, development, and finance; senior paralegals; and our DEIB leader. This team fluctuates between 14 and 16 people, depending on the number of included positions in each program (e.g., one program may go from one to two senior paralegals).

The Leadership Team receives reports from each Program Director (see below) and Specialty Team (see below) but only makes decisions at specific times. These times include when (i) the decision impacts the entire organization, (ii) a Specialty Team asks for the Leadership Team to weigh in, or (iii) an issue is controversial or cross-program, such that it cannot properly be handled by Specialty Teams or Program Directors.

Three Program Directors

The directors of the three client-facing programs operate their own programs fairly independently, overseeing program-specific processes and staff. Decisions might include how and when to conduct client visits, which positions to prioritize for hiring, how team meetings are run, how to process case handling, etc.

Five Specialty Teams

These teams include Finance, Development and Communications, HR/Operations, Legal Strategy (org-wide legal strategy decisions), and Staff Services (comprised of front-line staff whose goal is to make services more efficient for staff and clients).

Each specialty team has specific mandates and authority, handling big-picture issues in each team’s substantive area. This is where most management decisions are made. Each also engages with and is represented by the Leadership Team.

What is to be gained by moving towards collective leadership?

Gain 1: Embrace Internal Community

For most nonprofits, the internal staff community is their strongest resource in advancing their mission. The oft-mentioned “no money, no mission” slogan is incomplete—the real slogan should be: “no money to properly pay the staff, no mission.” Staff are the strength of every nonprofit; leaders who forget this are destined to failure (and also those who forget that their staff must be embraced as integral to the mission).

By embracing staff voices in the organization’s direction, leaders can drive greater retention of talent. This genuine collectiveness will lead to a greater sense of ownership and thus better morale.

Gain 2: Be Better Stewards of Values

In the past several years, much of the nonprofit sector (along with some of the commercial sector) has worked to better prioritize DEIB. Collective leadership creates more space for professional growth and leadership among staff from traditionally marginalized communities. With more leadership positions, staff have more access to promotions into leadership. With more space for staff input, opinions that may otherwise have been drowned out now have more chance of being heard. At the end of the day, a mission-driven organization should also be mission-driven in its operation.

Gain 3: Create Efficiencies

Collective leadership is not just letting more people weigh in on decisions; it is giving people the authority to make decisions. As a nonprofit grows, the number of decisions faced by a leadership team also grows (program decisions, HR complaints and policies, fundraising plans, legal issues, finance plans, etc.). A small group of leaders thinking through all these issues is inefficient.

By creating a leadership team with a broader array of expertise and trust in each other, subject-matter experts can make decisions without always needing the full leadership’s input. It is much more efficient to devolve power to the experts.

Gain 4: Create Your Next Leaders

In traditional structures, younger staff often lack the opportunity to gain valuable experience as organization leaders. This poses a significant challenge of how to prepare staff members to move into leadership positions when openings occur. By expanding the leadership structure to include more staff engagement, junior staff have the chance to be part of leadership decisions and conversations, learning to be leaders along the way.

Gain 5: Ensure Creativity is Not Lost

Working effectively to advance a mission—despite often limited resources—means finding creative solutions to challenging situations. Staff may have ideas and are unsure where to go with them or how to help them be realized.

Better internal communication channels ensure creative ideas are not lost. Instead, they are communicated to leadership and properly assessed. A collective leadership structure opens communication, allowing for greater creativity.

Gain 6: Increase the Ratio of Time that Staff Spend on Programmatic Work

The best use of staff time is working within their areas of expertise. Social workers should be interacting with clients and development staff should be dealing with donors, for example. By limiting communication bottlenecks and increasing efficiency, this structure is designed to reduce time spent by staff dealing with hierarchy, administration, and red tape.

Gain 7: Advance the Mission

One of the best things a nonprofit can do to help its clients, now and in the future, is retain talent. Increasing staff retention rate also increases senior-level expertise, helps staff develop into senior-level experts, and preserves institutional knowledge. All of this adds up to better services for our clients.

Thinking about moving toward collective leadership? Here are some considerations.

If you are rethinking your organization’s management structures and power dynamics, here are some steps to help you assess if (and how) to incorporate some aspects of collective leadership:

Step 1: Assess if You are Ready

Revamping your leadership is not going to work if your organization has other structural challenges that will inhibit the revamp’s success. Moving to a new leadership model is hard work, takes time, and requires buy-in up and down the organization.

If there is anything that will derail the work or buy-in, it may not be time for such a change. Before diving into a significant leadership change, ensure that emergency issues, financial hardships, program losses, large staff departures, etc. will not interfere with your decision.

Step 2: Engage Staff

Staff are not going to receive a new leadership style based in collective leadership very well if the decision is made top-down without staff engagement. It would be ironic and hypocritical for a small group of management to decide on a leadership structure based on staff engagement without engaging staff in that decision.

Start early with staff engagement. At the outset, ask staff for input on structures, and seek input along the way through implementation and assessment.

Step 3: Set Expectations

When selling the idea of a new leadership to your staff and board, it is important that you set expectations properly.

For staff, it is important that they understand that collective leadership is not communal decision-making: all decisions will not be made in consultation with all staff. Instead, teams of leaders will make decisions together with input from staff through open communication channels.

For your board, make sure that they understand that they will be interacting with a larger number of staff, but reassure them that there will still be primary points of contact. It is also a good idea to explain that the long-term health of the organization has been considered in your decision-making.

Step 4: Make Open Communication Channels

Whatever the model you choose, collective leadership requires all staff to have channels to express opinions and provide insight. Absent these channels, staff voices and ideas are not heard. Staff then might feel the structure disingenuous, and the purpose is lost.

These channels must not only exist; people on all sides must be open to respectful dialogue. It is also important to continue to refine the channels and to reinforce them with staff.

Step 5: Create Reciprocal Responsibility

All members of the team must pull their weight and work to be part of team decision-making. This includes stepping up to help lead the team at times as well as stepping back to allow others to lead. You must work to provide authentic engagement and accountability.

As with all management structures, collective leadership also requires us to accept limits: those imposed by structure and the need for decisiveness as well as our own personal and professional limits.

Step 6: Be Ready for Pushback

As you move towards a more collective style of leadership, you will need to devolve power from current leaders. They must give up authority, which they may have fought hard to obtain. You should not be surprised if some push back on this idea—why should they give up decision-making authority?

Be ready to explain that the decision is good for them and the organization. The two most important points are that a new structure will mean more help in decision-making as well as better retention, which makes everyone’s work easier.

Step 7: Measure and Change

Consider how you will measure the impact of this change. It is necessary to revisit your structure periodically to determine what changes you can make to improve. Whichever evaluation metrics you choose, ensure that they are focused on the goals you delineated when you started the process.

But wait…do not put your finger on the scale! If you evaluate the structure and you learn that a component or idea is not working, change it (again, and again).

An Iterative Process

For a long time, many nonprofits sought to model themselves on the systems and structures of for-profit industries. The idea was to replicate the structures that allowed for great profit with the goal of creating great impact.

However, we are not profit centers. For nonprofits, the drivers for staff retention and organizational direction are different — too different for leaders not to consider breaking from the commercial sector’s ideas.

Instead, nonprofit leaders must think back to when they started in the field and consider what they would have wanted from their leaders. If you, like many, would have wanted a strong voice in your mission, it may be time to consider collective leadership.

About the Author

Associate Director at | More Posts

Michael Lukens is the Associate Director at CAIR Coalition, which he joined in 2014. He is responsible for oversight of the legal and operational programs of the organization, including the Detained Adult Program, the Detained Unaccompanied Children’s Program, the Immigration Impact Lab, the Finance Team, and the Operations Team. Michael assists with development, communications, and board governance as well as sits on the Leadership Team of CAIR Coalition. Michael also serves as a liaison to law firms and the broader nonprofit community as well as directly represents children in removal proceedings. Prior to joining CAIR Coalition, Michael was a senior associate at Paul Hastings, where he focused on environmental matters and served as the Pro Bono Coordinator for the firm’s Washington, D.C. Office. In addition to his commercial portfolio and pro bono responsibilities, Michael worked on many direct representation matters for pro bono clients, including immigration, nonprofit governance, landlord/tenant rights, and contract matters. Michael received his J.D. from Hofstra School of Law and his Masters of Public Management from the University of Maryland.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

4 thoughts on “Unlocking Potential: Collective Leadership in Nonprofits

  1. Hi Michael, thank you for this thoughtful article; the organization in which I am board chair is reflecting on our approach to leadership and community, and I’m going to share this article.

    What I’m curious about is whether you have a board, and if you do, did this endorse this move? Did this move change/grow/improve board staff relations, and how important are board staff relations in this leadership model?

    Thanks again!

    1. I’m also curious – it’s been a long time coming for our org, and I’ve been in my position as ED for 29 years.

  2. Ha! I should have proofread before I posted!

    Hi Michael, thank you for this thoughtful article; the organization in which I am board chair is reflecting on our approach to leadership and community, and I’m going to share this article.

    What I’m curious about is whether you have a board, and if you do, did they endorse this move? Did this move change/grow/improve board-staff relations? Additionally, how important are board staff relations in this leadership model?

    Thanks again!

  3. I have worked for decades on racial equity practices using a DEI lens. This article describes how to do the thing I describe as “inclusion”: having people who are impacted by decisions be involved in making them.

    Inclusion isn’t a feeling, it’s a practice. The practices outlined in this article are very clear and helpful. I look forward to sharing this article with my clients. Thanks for writing it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *