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Meet ANP. ANP is an Arbitrary Nonprofit that was started by a charismatic individual with a love for delivering quality programming to high-need communities in Philadelphia. ANP is well-known within its neighborhood and the Philadelphia nonprofit sector, but remains relatively small, employing just a handful of staff and operating on a modest annual budget of $300,000.

As with many small organizations in today’s world, ANP finds that funding is increasingly difficult to obtain. Funders are looking for innovation and rigorous demonstration of program efficacy, and ANP sometimes struggles to remain ahead of the curve. However, ANP staff is smart, talented, and full of great ideas for how to improve programs, develop partnerships, and make day-to-day operations more efficient. At the same time, ANP’s Executive Director struggles to juggle all of the responsibilities demanded of her role. Staff and programs require oversight, relationships with donors must be cultivated and maintained, and the organization’s books must be kept up-to-date. With no capacity to hire additional staff to lighten the burden, the ED is overwhelmed. Since she’s run ANP for what feels like forever, there is an implicit understanding among staff that all decisions must be approved by her. And she dutifully complies, often at the risk of not completing tasks in a timely matter.

Should ANP continue to rely so heavily on their ED?  Is the current leadership model the best possible one?

There are alternative approaches that ANP could explore. Each is rooted in the idea of a “heterarchical” model, characterized by shared power structures, interdependence and collaboration. [In contrast with the standard hierarchical model, where power and decision-making come from above, passed down a well-defined vertical ladder.] ANP might consider:

  1. Distributed Leadership

While the ED remains at the top of the totem pole, decision-making is consistently and methodically pushed down to other levels in the organization. ANP’s ED invests some time and energy to equip staff with the tools they need to make informed individual decisions that support overall organizational goals. For example, Program Director #1 is empowered to change the way his program collects data. He finds that it is more efficient, provides better information, and helps with evaluation. He makes the call, and later demonstrates the results.

Once such structures are in place, the ED is no longer swamped, and has time to focus on tasks more suited to her position. The staff is more motivated because they feel like they have more of an active role in the organization’s future, and are free to develop relationships with externals. They increase their visibility as key cogs in the ANP machine, thus lessening the burden once the ED is ready to retire.

Requirements for success: high level of trust, investment in staff development, structure that supports organizational values, patience and time

 2. Shared Leadership

The top level of leadership is shared internally by two or more people. Authority, responsibility and accountability are more broadly distributed and supported with well-defined communication protocols. The model creates opportunities for fuller participation in the leadership of the organization by more of its staff, and reduces the burden on the single ED.

For example, ANP decides that there should be 2 ED’s that split the work. They divvy up tasks and make autonomous decisions in their respective areas of responsibility. ED#1 focuses on the programmatic work, while ED#2 works on raising money. While these are not mutually exclusive, they also don’t require a single decision maker to tie it all together. ED#1 and ED#2 develop a process for good, regular communication.

Requirements for success: Buy-in from staff, clarity of roles, sharing information, EDs control only what they need to control

Could these approaches work for other nonprofits, and not just the extremely self-aware and egalitarian ANP? For larger nonprofits? For any and all nonprofits? How often do we even evaluate our organization’s leadership structure as a key part of how it functions? If fully implementing such a model doesn’t make sense, are there specific components that may work on their own?