Nonprofit organizations are increasingly turning to alternative leadership structures with shared responsibilities to help combat burnout as well as open doors for more diverse executives.
That’s according to a recent Grand Valley State University report that names non-traditional organizational structures as an emerging nonprofit sector trend to watch in 2023.
The annual report from GVSU’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy this year explores various non-traditional organizational structures that have garnered greater attention in recent years, including worker self-direction, in which all employees in an organization provide input on programs and operations, much like a worker cooperative. Other examples include fiscal sponsorships in which a typically larger nonprofit offers its tax-exempt status and back office support to smaller organizations working on projects that align with their mission, as well as co-executive leadership structures where two or more executives share responsibilities.
Some West Michigan nonprofits are already seeing the benefits of co-leadership structures that delegate responsibilities among more executives to help avoid burnout while also bringing in more diverse voices.
Grand Rapids-based Access of West Michigan (AWM) in 2017 started embracing the co-leadership model by adding a second executive director. The faith-based organization, which addresses poverty and basic human needs in West Michigan, has since expanded to include four co-executive directors.
“A value of our organization since its inception 42 years ago has always been collaboration,” co-executive director Alaina Dobkowsksi told MiBiz. “We’re always working with our partners for collective impact, so in many ways this leadership model helps us lean further into that value by not only working towards collective impact in the community, but also our organization is running that way.”
Each of the four co-executive directors has a specific focus that is reflected in their title. Dobkowski primarily oversees AWM’s fundraising, marketing, and communications. McKenzie VanPatten is co-executive director of programs, Christina Swiney is co-executive director of operations, and Nikeyia Perkins serves as co-executive director of engagement.
Like many organizations that adopt a co-leadership model, AWM’s leadership positions were filled through the internal promotion of existing employees.
Despite their distinct roles, the leaders also collaborate regularly with one another to share the burdens that would otherwise fall on one individual.
“We’re in budgeting season right now, and the fact that we’re able to spread out these responsibilities to budget together and it’s not all on one person who is carrying that stress and carrying that anxiety that can lead to burnout — it’s huge,” Dobkowski said.
Unique idea to ‘fully a trend’
Tory Martin, the Johnson Center’s director of communications and strategic partnerships who co-authored several sections of the report, first became interested in co-leadership models in 2019 after working with the Whitman Institute, a spend-out foundation that distributes its endowment then closes, which operated with multiple executive directors.
“When I learned about that model and what they were doing there, that sparked my curiosity,” Martin said. “I literally sent out a tweet from the Johnson Center’s account saying we’re looking into co-leadership and asking: Are there other organizations doing this that we should take a look at? We got a ton of responses back.”
Many of these initial respondents felt that while the idea of non-traditional organizational structures was gaining steam in the nonprofit sector, it wasn’t quite a full trend yet in 2019. Martin kept an eye on the topic over the next several years until it became apparent that more nonprofits were becoming interested in or were adopting these models.
“Now that another several years have gone by and we’re seeing this growth more broadly in different structures and more people talking more actively about burnout and about the burdens of leadership, it felt like it was a ripe opportunity to showcase what we now feel is fully a trend shaping the sector,” Martin said.
Burnout among CEOs and other executives ranks high on the list of reasons that organizations adopt co-leadership models. The Johnson Center report cites a 2021 study of six organizations with at least two executive directors, in which the study authors wrote: “We notice that leaders who are not bound by traditional notions of organizational structure are also more likely to be empathetic and proactive about the mental health and personal well-being of leaders and staff.”
Dobkowski is all too familiar with this burnout.
“I have served as an executive director who was in the typical model of what that leadership looks like, and leadership can be pretty lonely,” Dobkowski said.
Nonprofit leaders often find themselves juggling myriad tasks on their own, and can have difficulty maintaining a healthy work/life balance.
According to Martin, executive burnout has been present in conversations about the nonprofit sector for decades, though little progress has been made in addressing it. She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic also has played a major role in organizations re-examining the well-being of employees.
“We’re living in a particularly traumatic era, and we have to find ways to make positions, organizations and leaders be resilient,” Martin said.
Martin said many in the nonprofit field have already been exploring the idea of fellowship programs and sabbaticals to help curb burnout among leaders. The co-leadership model is yet another tool that some organizations are now using to address these concerns.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Another motivating factor for adopting a non-traditional organizational structure is the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion within the nonprofit sector, specifically by opening leadership opportunities for people of color.
“They aren’t just waiting for somebody to retire or take a new position, they’re literally creating new jobs,” Martin said. “That’s a tremendous opportunity to expand the diversity of their leadership.”
According to a nonprofit census published late last year by the Johnson Center, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Data Driven Detroit, roughly 76 percent of Michigan nonprofits are led by white executives. Additionally, the organizations run by executives of color were more likely to have a shared leadership structure.
This is the case for AWM, which has two women of color serving on its executive leadership team. VanPatten, the co-executive director of programs, was brought onto the leadership team when the organization expanded to four co-executive directors. She also acts as co-chair of AWM’s Anti-Racism Team.
“I definitely think traditionally the nonprofit sector has been dominated by white leaders, and that has influenced how that space has looked,” VanPatten said. “So being able to have a woman of color who is part of executive leadership helps change things, and then to also have awesome co-executives who are willing to support that and totally willing to go against the grain, that is a huge reason we made the transition from two to four. It was to show that a multiracial, woman-led team in the nonprofit sector can work, and we wanted to be an example of that.”
Martin noted that non-traditional leadership structures are a particularly good fit for philanthropy compared to other business sectors.
“So many nonprofits are so community-based, and they require network-building, partner-building, community trust-building,” Martin said. “Removing the concept of ‘one person knows best’ just feels so natural with the work.”
Dobkowski said the structure is working well for AWM, and she’s excited about the growing interest among other nonprofits.
“We hope one day — after we’ve been at it for a couple of years with four people — to be able to provide a roadmap or a skeleton of things we tried that worked and things we tried that didn’t work to be able to help support people,” Dobkowski said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Access of West Michigan.
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