Who holds power in your NFP? Your answer might help explain how effective and engaged your staff and volunteers are

Who holds power in your NFP organisation?

It’s difficult to talk about power. Mentioning power can conjure up memories of encounters with parents, teachers, bosses, the law, family or partners who have exercised power over over us in negative ways.

But power relationships are woven throughout our lives, and throughout our workplaces. And being clear about who holds power – particularly the power to make decisions – in your organisation, as well as ensuring that structure reflects your organisation’s shared values – will mean that staff and volunteers understand how and why power works as it does. And that can mean the difference between an empowered staff member, and a disempowered, disengaged one.

In their recent article for Stanford Social Innovation Review, organisational experts Eric Meade and Daniel Doucette offer a four-part recipe for identifying power and decision-making structures in NFP organisations, and incrementally evolving them to better align with your organisation’s values:

1) Map out power

Start by identifying where your organisation’s power lies – or, more specifically, with whom.

Some key questions to consider include:

  • Who – whether individuals or groups – is able to make which decisions independently?
  • What constraints need to be taken account of in guiding their decisions, and what happens if those constraints are ignored?
  • Why has each person been assigned or taken on power – is it their seniority, age, experience, skill or has it just happened by default or without a good reason?
  • Does everyone else in the organisation recognise that power?

This exercise should clearly determine where the power to make certain decisions lies, as well as identifying the decisions that should be made either in collaboration or unaided.

Be mindful of making any judgement at this point – the key is to simply establish ‘the way it is’.

2) Compare power with values

How do the outcomes of the above exercise align with your organisation’s values?

Consider where the power map you’ve developed meets the values that your organisation holds both in writing – like on your website – and exhibits implicitly through behaviour.

Equally important is looking at where the power map deviates from your values, as well as the areas in which the way power is distributed stimulates enthusiasm – for example by involving community members in an interview and hiring process – versus resentment – for example, by distributing decision-making power on an ad-hoc basis, empowering some staff and disempowering others.

Focus here on the roles within the organisation, not on the people who fill them, or their leadership approach.

3) Begin change slowly

Once you’ve determined the status quo, now comes time to start evolving and improving the power structure to resolve any deficiencies.

Some places to start include:

  • Are there any instances of the decision-making power clearly being outdated, unfair or ad-hoc?
  • Considering the above exercise of comparing power structures to values, is there a need for immediate action to resolve urgent imbalances?
  • Are there any decisions currently being made in an inclusive way involving many people which would clearly be better off being made by a smaller group or individual – or vice versa?

If you find there’s a significant gap between your organisation’s power structures and values, it’s important to acknowledge the implicit values that your structure currently communicates – and allow space to resolve it.

But however things currently work, its probably better to focus on how your organisation can change incrementally, rather than suggesting wholesale change which might create more problems than it solves.

4) Communicate clearly

The final step is to cultivate a culture in which staff feel free to use their power – but without identifying with that power personally, or having others associate it with them as an individual.

How? By creating an operational power map that outlines the power framework in writing and clearly delineates the power that different roles hold. This leaves no questions around who yields what power, particularly when people move positions within the organisation.

Finally, outline the language that’s appropriate for staff to use when exercising their power – this reminds people on both sides of the equation that the organisation’s benefit should be the end goal of decisions.

Following these steps can ensure staff are on the same page when it comes to understanding the power and decision-making processes in your organisation, as well as reduce any concerns about decisions made in the interests of politics, self-aggrandisement or animosity.

While it can be difficult to talk about power, it’s also an important discussion to have in any NFP organisation. For maximum organisational impact, power structures must align with values – and it’s far more constructive to directly face any discomfort and devise a more effective way forward than respond with resentment or disruption if they don’t.

How important is power to your engagement at work? Let us know in the comments below.

Image: By NeetiR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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