Becoming a Democratically Managed Organization
By Elena Karoulina & Allison Nagel, Co-Executive Directors
People often think “sustainability” means renewable energy or control of carbon emissions. While it can mean those things (and more, as defined in many Climate Action and Sustainability plans around the globe), we believe that sustainability begins in our hearts and resides in our ability to live well together in harmony with each other and our planet. At Sustainable Solano, we operate within these global frameworks of carbon sequestration and resource conservation, yet we consider creation of healthy social forms our main goal.
We bring people together for immediate and personal cooperation, for working together towards something that is bigger than each of us individually — for the good of the whole. Our public events strive to give participants the experience of a healthy social life, of seeing and valuing each other and our unique contribution to the world as part of an experience that helps us connect with ourselves, each other and the Earth.
The SuSol team and board members (present and past) at a May gathering to recognize founding Executive Director Elena Karoulina’s leadership as we grow as a democratically managed organization
Our team at Sustainable Solano is also a unique social organism, a living and breathing being that requires our attention and care. For a few years now we’ve been engaged in inquiry around what it means to uphold a healthy organization that is effective and impactful for the outside world, while supporting our personal and professional growth and development, respecting our authentic expression, and valuing our individual contributions.
During the pandemic, we began learning about Teal organizations, a growing trend in the business and nonprofit world of creating self-managing organizations. We were intrigued by this holistic and empowering approach, yet we felt we did not have enough tools and resources to fully embrace it at the time.
Last year, a few of our team members joined the Collaborate to Co-Liberate training from the Nonprofit Democracy Network and it finally clicked! In the network, we met many fellow nonprofits following the same path towards democratically managed organizations and learned many tools to manifest this vision. The generous long-term capacity-building support of the Magic Cabinet Foundation made it possible to try this approach for our organization.
Our professional world is largely hierarchical: the direction is given from the top of the organization and doing is at the bottom. The nonprofit sector, built on the corporate model (which, in turn, was built on the military model) is no different: the boards set the course, put things in motion, and hire an executive director to watch over the staff and report back to the board. This picture is no longer serving our evolving collective consciousness and the needs of our shared humanity.
Sustainable Solano has always been different: it’s a collegial, non-hierarchical, positive organization where the board and team work closely together and major decisions have always been made collectively. We are now deepening, defining and codifying this approach.
Our work is arranged around three major areas: Green Infrastructure, Local Food and Community Resiliency. Each area (we call them “guilds” to reflect their organic nature and our roots in permaculture) selects their Guild Leads, who for a limited time (18-24 months) become members of the Leadership Circle and assume a leadership role within their guilds. The Leadership Circle together with the Board of Directors is responsible for all key decisions for the organization (strategic direction, funding, compensation, key partnerships). These decisions are not done in isolation behind closed doors: they are brought to each Guild for discussion, and the feedback comes back to the Leadership Circle. A circular, non-hierarchical, fluid and transparent decision-making structure is one of the key features of our vision.
The second important feature is distribution of the key business functions across the organization. In a traditional model everything is fragmented and often disconnected: people doing the organization’s public-facing work have very little understanding or say in the matters of HR, finance, legal or infrastructure. In democratically managed organizations, these functions are assumed by the team members as an integral part of their core responsibilities, with added compensation to reflect that work. We call these four key areas of operation “hubs.” Our team members have an option to chose one of those as an added responsibility and assume an active role in the operations of their hub and key decisions there.
This approach does not lend itself to a traditional role of a “CEO on top of the C-Suite” either. To recognize the nature of the distributed leadership model and to support professional growth of our team members, we’ve also transitioned Sustainable Solano to a co-executive director model. We strongly believe that leading an organization like Sustainable Solano requires “home-grown” leaders who have worked on the ground, understand the organization, its mission and its culture, have received support and professional development from the organization and are ready to take on extra responsibilities. Co-executive directors will step up from the Leadership Circle; the position is also rotational, requiring a 3-4 year commitment.
We are thrilled to introduce our first co-executive director, Allison Nagel, who will join our long-term founding Executive Director Elena Karoulina in this role. With this transition, Elena’s title is now also co-executive director. Under this model, we hope to share the responsibilities and accountability held as co-executive directors, while retaining a firm footing in the community-based programs that are the vital core of Sustainable Solano’s work.
We hope our example will inspire other nonprofits and businesses in Solano County to follow. Please let us know if you have questions or comments — we would love to be in communication with organizations walking this path.