After a series of executive directors left the David Brower Center in quick succession, staff and board members at the organization couldn’t bear to conduct yet another hiring search. So they devised a unique solution: flatten the leadership hierarchy and appoint four current employees as co-managers.
“We were really excited to be doing something innovative in the nonprofit field,” says Jackie Hasa, one of the managers, who notes that innovation is part of the environmental community center’s mission.
Having multiple captains at the helm of a nonprofit is not unprecedented. For example, two CEOs have jointly led Teach for America since the charity’s founder, Wendy Kopp, stepped down in 2013. Justice Now, a law clinic for incarcerated women, adopted a new management structure in January, with three co-directors.
Although splitting the top job among more than one person is rare, there is growing interest in alternative leadership structures at nonprofits, says Marla Cornelius, senior project director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, a consultancy. It stems, she says, from younger people looking to shake up traditional structures, boards hoping to avoid executive burn-out, and groups like the Brower Center trying to avoid succession crises.
Who Needs a CEO?
Opened in 2009 in Berkeley, Calif., the David Brower Center — named for the first executive director of the Sierra Club — serves as an art gallery, conference facility, and work space for environmental activists. Its first executive director left in 2012 after having a baby, and leadership kept turning over.
“It’s pretty deflating to constantly go through this process of executive searches,” says Peter Buckley, founder and president of the center’s board of directors. He likened the situation to family turmoil: “It’s difficult. You’re with your mother one week, your father one week, and then your aunt.”
Out of necessity, staff members found themselves taking on more responsibility and figuring out how to run the center themselves. They eventually proposed the idea of dividing executive duties among four people who were already managing the center’s different operations.
“Each of them I could see becoming stronger and more capable at their jobs and more confident in their decision-making, and surpassing every metric that we use,” Mr. Buckley says. “The programming got very innovative and very cool. Lots of great ideas were bubbling up. You don’t need to be very smart to say, ‘Wait a minute, why do we need an executive director?’ ”
They gave it a shot in September 2014. After an eight-month trial period was successful, the board approved the restructuring in May.
Holding All the Cards
The transition was eased by a grant from the Panta Rhea Foundation, which brought in Ann Dowley as a consultant to help Brower build its organizational capacity. That grant, and Ms. Dowley’s services, were redirected to the new management idea after the last executive director announced her departure.
“I had never really seen this work anywhere,” Ms. Dowley said. “I was skeptical, too. I didn’t want to have a client that gets their hopes up and not have it work out.”
But through many discussions, she, the team of four managers, and Mr. Buckley hammered out a plan. They wanted the management team to be the “glue” for the organization, Ms. Hasa says, a role usually served by the executive director — “the person holding all the cards.”
“We can remove that single person and, by working together better, we can hold all those cards together,” she says.
The organization’s leaders also hoped to make the nonprofit more flexible and responsive to change by removing what Ms. Hasa called the “funnel” at the top that tends to impede action.
They created an organizational chart to clarify responsibilities. Each staff member reports to one, not all, of the four managers, who oversee distinct program areas. Michael Anzalone is responsible for programs and property management; Hillary Brooks handles finance and operations; Laurie Rich runs the conference center; and Ms. Hasa oversees community partnerships and exhibitions.
The managers share executive duties such as budgeting, hiring, and interacting with the board.
The benefits were apparent almost immediately, Mr. Buckley said. Eliminating the executive director’s salary has allowed the nonprofit to spend that money elsewhere. Board members appreciate the increased engagement, and the four managers are forced to keep each other more informed about each other’s work.
“Not everything requires everyone’s approval,” Ms. Hasa says. “We’ve had success working together on a consensus basis. We don’t all have to vote. We have four people who are similarly aligned in a lot of ways. We don’t have a lot of arguments.”
And Mr. Buckley thinks the change has made them more invested in the organization. “What I see is each of them identifies with the success of the Brower Center,” he says. “I think that’s true of an executive director in general, but when you can distribute that over four people, it’s even better.”
Ms. Hasa thinks the multiple- manager system may work well at Brower because of its relatively small size — it has 18 staff members, some of whom work part-time.
“Everyone is juggling pieces, and we don’t have many specialists here,” she says. “Creating these overlaps, in a way, is recognizing what is going on already. At a larger organization with a more siloed structure, it might be harder to implement.”
Although it’s only been a few months, Mr. Buckley thinks the new arrangement has put the Brower Center on a more sustainable path.
“The organization has become alive, it’s not static,” he says. “It’s not dependent on me or somebody else.”