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Circle Up

by Caitlin Dourmashkin and Micah Blumenthal

Becoming a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit is primarily a conceptual shift; it is a shift away from a hierarchical system of power and decision making to a distributed, democratic model of shared leadership based on a radical sense of trust. As a team, this means we are all (for the most part) shifting away from the only system of work that we have known to something completely new. We are developing new practices, new ways of communicating, and new ways of understanding the needs and vocation of our selves, our colleagues, and the organization. 

Early on in the process, when we were reviewing the work of other organizations that have made this transition, specifically the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), we realized that to make this shift, to transform our organization and ourselves, we needed clear policies to guide us. The conceptual shift needed to be complemented by an equally important structural shift. In our Fellowships, we have always created collective working agreements (sometimes called “Accords”) to guide our interactions and share our intentions. What we needed was a working agreement to serve as both a roadmap for our transition and a shared understanding of practice.

It can be tempting to assume an organic process for shared leadership, and in many instances that may work in the short term. However, when considering the overall life of our organization we realized we needed a structure to hold the practice over time, independent of any one team member. With the best of intentions we can unconsciously revert to the systems of old; the hierarchical, top down power dynamic that we may not like, but we are certainly used to. The policies are a safety net, intended to catch us when we stumble. They are a tangible guide for how to show up and engage with each other as shared leaders of this organization.

Enter the Internal Policy Document, a working title that we hope to jazz up in the future. We are using the SELC’s internal policy document as a guide, but for each policy we are going through an idea generation, feedback, and consent approval process as a team. Even if the end result is basically the same policy that we started with, the process of co-creation is core to our ability to hold this work together. 

It has been a daunting task, there is a lot to go through and a lot of input to collect, but the policies that have come out of this process have felt clearer and more authentic to our aspirations as an organization. The cornerstone of these policies, and really the anchoring force in our transition, has been the creation of GWI Circles Policy. Once we got this right, or at least right for right now, so much of the work came into focus. 

A WSDNP allows for a significant amount of autonomy, while also distributing leadership throughout the team. We do this through circles, small teams of workers that operate independently within a defined area of work. There are different types of circles that hold different types of work and decisions, and GWI workers have different degrees of access to the circles. Board members also play a role in these circles, but we will go over the board and how they operate in our new system in a later post. 

For now, we want to share our jumping off point for the Circle Policy. We recognize that this can and will change over time, but we like to say that in this new way of working we hold things “tightly and lightly.” This means we are committed to living in to this policy, and holding it tightly as it is written to really experience how it works. However, we also hold it lightly in as much as we know that all things change and evolve, and we will respond to what emerges when the time is right.  


The General Circle

The General Circle is the primary body responsible for the management of the Good Work Institute. The General Circle has the ultimate authority to: 

  • Create new circles and disband existing  circles
  • Make other governance decisions that impact a) all or substantially all workers, b) multiple circles, or c) the organization as a whole
  • Serve as the mediating body for all internal (and external) conflicts. 

As of right now, all Worker Trustees (which is all current staff at GWI) participate in the General Circle. We may choose to reduce this to a rotating body of three Worker Trustees in the future, but for now there six people on the General Circle. 

(Note, we distinguish between Worker and Worker Trustee at GWI, which is a bit like a worker and worker-owner in a cooperatively owned business, and we will share our thinking behind this designation in the future.)

Organizational Circles

Organizational Circles (i.e. Org Circles) are permanent circles tasked with overseeing and managing core operational functions of GWI in accordance with organizational policy. Org Circles can make updates to policies, but any changes that have a significant impact on all staff require General Circle approval. Each Org Circle has a defined circle “Steward” responsible for the work. Org Circle Stewards are designated by the General Circle and can only be removed by the General Circle. In addition to the Circle Steward, all Worker Trustees will join Org Circles on a rotational basis for a minimum of 6 months. This is intended to build shared institutional knowledge of our organizational operations. The General Circle will manage operations circle rotations. 

Program Circles

Program circles are convened by the General Circle to design, implement, and manage GWI’s external program work. In creating a new Program Circle, the General Circle must approve the circle’s purpose, initial accountabilities, and initial circle members. Any change to a circle’s purpose must be approved by the General Circle. Once established by the General Circle, Program Circles are empowered to define and distribute roles within the circle, decide what projects to take on in furtherance of its purpose, create sub-circles, add new circle members, and set other internal priorities. For example, a Program Circle may autonomously decide to change its name, design a new program in line with its purpose, restructure circle roles, or change programming priorities, as long as those changes fit with the overall mission and resource allocation plan set by the General Circle.

The Learning Circle

The GWI Learning Circle is a permanent circle dedicated to shepherding learning experiences that build the content (analysis, understanding) and process (practices, skills, tools) capacity of Workers and the Board so we can facilitate, personally embody, and collectively model a just transition in the HV. The Learning Circle supports shared learning experiences for all Workers and the Board, and ensures the integration of learning into all aspects of GWI’s operation and programming. All Worker Trustees will serve on the Learning Circle, with rotations to be directed by the General Circle.

As you can see, some circles have roles baked into them, but most give complete autonomy to the Circle to define roles and organize work. The General Circle oversees the output of all circles, and makes decisions to convene or disband circles based on resource allocation and mission alignment, but the General Circle does not direct the work. That is left to each individual circle. 

We will keep sharing key policies here as we create them, and we hope you tune in over the next few months to see how it is going. In the meantime, please get in touch with any questions. This is our starting point, and there are a lot of decisions and deep thinking baked into this model that we don’t have a chance to get to here. Our goal is radical transparency, so if you have any questions, all you need to do is ask!


Next up in the series, Susan  will share their Notes from the Field, and after that Micah and Aja will talk about radical trust and how it anchors every decision we make as a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit.

We launched this series of articles and reflections in September 2019 to share our journey of moving from a traditional hierarchical nonprofit to a worker self-directed nonprofit. We hope by opening up this transition it might help others take the first steps towards sharing power in their workplaces.

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