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Can Non-traditional Leadership Models Help You Drive Impact?

Your organization’s mission is to solve some of society’s most complex and long-lasting challenges. You do this in the face of ongoing challenges, both internal and external, that range from staffing challenges to deep-seeded inequities. To accomplish your goals, you find new ways of looking at old problems. Perhaps you team up with other nonprofits and government organizations to develop collective impact initiatives, or design programs that put people at the center of their own services. In addition to these best-practices, you are always looking for new and innovative ways to create long-lasting social impact.

One strategy that has gained traction in recent years is embracing non-traditional management styles. Top-down, pyramid shaped organizational structures have dominated governments, businesses, and nonprofits for eons. But what if they are not the best option for driving change?

According to Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, many nonprofits have embraced non-traditional management styles and organizational structures in order to “create more sustainable and mission-driven programs.” In an article on organizational structures, they outline three alternative operational models; workplace democracy, co-leadership, and fiscal sponsorship.

Workplace Democracy

Williams College defines “workplace democracy” as “the application of democratic practices, such as voting, debate and participatory decision-making systems, to the workplace.” In the nonprofit space, the Sustainable Economies Law Center calls this approach being “worker self-directed” and explains that organizations that embrace this approach give their workers the power to influence the programs in which they work. These cooperative models exist on a sliding scale from more traditional leadership models which encourage feedback from the frontline workers, to truly democratic situations where everyone has a vote and is involved in decision making.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center itself is an Oakland, California based nonprofit which embraces a worker self-directed model as it works to “community resilience and grassroots economic empowerment.” Each of their programs are run by semi-autonomous staff that are encouraged to take leadership roles and find innovative solutions. They are then held accountable by larger groups within the organization.

One necessary ingredient in any successful workplace democracy is the democratization of data. In order to make data-driven decisions, leaders need access to reliable real-time data. Having access to the right data for their responsibilities empowers team members to be proactive and find data-driven solutions to complex problems in traditional business models. Having access to data becomes even more important in a self-directed workplace.


Traditional pyramid models exist on one end of the leadership spectrum, with workplace democracy on the other. In the middle, there exists co-leadership models. This model involves two or more individuals sharing both the opportunities and burdens of leadership. Co-leadership can exist at different levels of an organization from co-executives down to shared responsibility for individual teams.

Sharing leadership has a number of distinct advantages. First, it fuels better ideas. A single leader may make decisions based on their own experience and bias, but joint leaders are forced to collaborate and bring their different perspectives together to find the best solutions. As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one. Another strength of co-leadership is shared responsibility. Burnout is a major challenge that social-good organizations face at every level, but particularly for directors and executives. Having a partner to share the load can reduce stress-related burnout. Co-leadership models can also open up opportunities for leaders to build relationships with their teams, which in turn helps the team members avoid burnout.

Not only do co-leadership models help your team organization thrive, they can help you work towards your goals for achieving equitable outcomes. More leaders means more leadership opportunities for women and BIPOC. Having diversity in your leadership provides essential perspectives and experiences that can help your team determine the best ways to address the inequity in your communities and the demographics you serve.

Though there are many advantages to co-leadership, there are a few disadvantages as well. Without clear procedures in place it can cause confusion at the team level, as well as disagreements and a slower decision making progress. But, when done well, the pros of embracing co-leadership can outweigh the cons.

Fiscal Sponsorship

While workplace democracy and co-leadership can be applied at a variety of organizations in different stages of their growth, fiscal sponsorship is a non-traditional model aimed at helping new nonprofits hit the ground running. Many of the best ideas for nonprofits risk failure before they ever have a chance to get going. The legal and logistical challenges of finding funding sources, creating new organizational structures, and qualifying for 501(c) status can be overwhelming. Instead of starting from scratch, another option for these fledgling nonprofits is to find a fiscal sponsor.

A fiscal sponsor is an existing 501(c) organization that “provides fiduciary oversight, financial management, and other administrative services to help build the capacity of charitable projects.” Starting your charitable programs with a fiscal sponsorship can be a great way to lessen your initial administrative burden while focusing on building up your programs and growing your fundraising before becoming a fully-fledged nonprofit. Some social-good organizations may even choose to make fiscal sponsorship their long-term organizational model.

Wrapping Up

There is no perfect organizational structure. The best strategy for your social-good organization is determined by your mission and the needs of the communities you serve. But when partnered with essential tools such as sustainable collaborations, impact measurement, and data-driven strategic planning, non-traditional leadership models may help you in your mission to improve lives and drive social impact.

SureImpact is a purpose-built impact management platform that is designed for social-good providers by social-good providers. SureImpact provides the data collection, impact reporting, and analytics infrastructure to meet the unique needs of social-good organizations as they work to build a culture of continuous improvement and maximize their social impact. SureImpact’s simple and collaborative case management and outcome tracking tools are designed to help nonprofits manage, measure, and communicate their social impact while also increasing data capacity for their team members and supporting a high-performing culture.

Join us for our 4-part on-demand webinar series “Leveling Up Your Team Impact” to learn how to create internal champions for measuring and communicating your organization’s social impact. Each session is dedicated to a specific team – all with their unique needs and priorities in mind. You’ll learn how to communicate how each department (and individual) will benefit and grow by making impact measurement a priority.


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