Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Organizations and Leadership

Written by Frances Kunreuther

Recently, we have been getting a lot of requests to talk about two of our reports that came out a few years ago, Structuring Leadership: Alternative Models for Distributing Power and Decision  and What Works: Developing Successful Multigenerational Leadership. Both reports focus on the way organizations operate and the role leadership plays in the decision-making process. They help us think about the possibilities for creating structures and processes that support new and diverse leadership across the organization. And it doesn’t really take that much.

What Works was a survey of nonprofit staffers done with idealist.org  that asks, what makes a good workplace and what do you need to do your best work. Survey respondents told us that good workplaces have 1) clear function and structures, 2) adequate benefits and supports, 3) collective belief in mission (less important for millennials), 4) transparency and input in decision-making, and 5) leadership development (less important for boomers).

But when asked what helps them do their best work, the order shifts. Here, what ranked first – which most people had – were positive relationships, especially with direct supervisors, including mutual respect, shared or understood responsibility, and accountability on both sides of the relationship.  That was followed by belief in the mission: 87% of the respondents believed in the mission and 77% believed their work contributed to the organization’s mission. In the third-ranked area, transparency and input in decision-making, we found that less than half of the respondents were informed of how/why decisions were made about their work/program. Fourth, new opportunities (challenges and advancement) also fell short with just over 20% reporting there were clear avenues for salary increase and promotion. Clear function and structures was ranked fifth.

Finally, it also was striking to find out what social sector staffers did not rank highly. Workplace flexibility, input and feedback from others, outside support and relationships were all of less concern to respondents; with even less interest in (outside) leadership development, and collaboration and teamwork, even though most people worked in teams. Diversity was an area that also had a low ranking (across race/gender) especially among generation X and millennials; however we found that those people who said they worked in diverse teams were happier with their positons than those who did not.

Finally just a word about our report, Structuring Leadership: Here we looked at social sector organizations that place a high emphasis on either a shared model of decision-making and/or distributed leadership. We found organizations that look like traditional hierarchies from the outside can embrace leadership practices that actually distribute authority and responsibility throughout the organization. We also learned that non-traditional leadership structures such as one or more co-executive directors/presidents can still operate in very traditional ways. Organizations that were able to distribute leadership in the organization engaged in four practices:

1. High levels of trust: Strong trust came up in two ways – as both necessary to operating within a distributive leadership structure, but also as a result of operating that way. In other words, the process of trusting people to make good decisions leads to further increased trust in the organization.

2. Investment in learning: Investing resources in the learning and development of staff was a key practice that allowed staff members to make informed decisions individually and to contribute to shared decision-making.

3. Values are important: Values-based leadership – as well as building a structure that supports organizational values – is another important part of distributing leadership.  

4. Patience and Time: Approaching organizational structure in a new way meant creating time in the organization for these activities. Initially these changes can mean investing in a process that could last several months, but respondents believed that the results lead to increased impact.

What do we know about what makes organizations work well for staff and impact? These two reports might be a good place to start.

Leadership leadership structures and practices organizational decision making organizational structures workplace