By Ananda Valenzuela, Interim Executive Director
As you may have heard, our wonderful founding Executive Director, Vu Le, has retired from RVC, closing out his time at the hilarious Vu’s Vegan Roast event on February 22nd. At the event, everyone kept asking when we’re going to start searching for our next Executive Director. A question they immediately regretted asking because I like to jump into a lengthy soliloquy on the complexities of developing a distributed leadership structure befitting a self-managing organization.
To translate that into real talk: At RVC, we’re tired of traditional top-down models of running organizations, in which the Executive Director makes all the decisions. Vu and I, as Executive Director and Managing Director, had already been trying to break open the impossible ED job, and overturn traditional decision-making — and we’ve done that while growing RVC to a $3 million nonprofit with 20 hard-working staff, and partnering with a growing network of brilliant leaders doing amazingly impactful work in communities of color.
So how do we create a structure that supports all of us as leaders, and still gets the work done?
The team has asked me to serve as Interim Executive Director in order to maintain stability during this time of transition, and I’m not in it alone — we’ve split up Executive Director responsibilities among our team of directors. And as we transition our organization to being fully self-managing, we’ll figure out what kind of leadership structure best supports that model. Thankfully we’re not alone; our wise consultants, Kad Smith and Michelle Gislason, are walking alongside us as we make mistakes and try new things.
Yeah, I know. You’re wondering why in the world we decided to jump headlong into all of this instead of hiring a new Executive Director and calling it a day.
We’ve got a few reasons for taking this transition seriously:
- Recommitting to both shared leadership and distributed leadership — RVC is committed to sharing senior leadership among multiple people and distributing true decision-making power widely across the organization. For us, both of these components are necessary in order to radically reimagine how a healthy nonprofit operates. Building Movement Project wrote a great piece on these different forms of leadership, if you’re interested in learning more. We know we need to figure this out fully before we try to hire anyone new into our senior leadership team.
- Striving towards greater equity and liberation — We constantly try to live up to our core values, and in doing so, we move from systems of oppression to practices of liberation. Thought leaders like Monica Dennis, Rachael Ibrahim, and Elissa Perry have given us excellent lenses into how to do this deep inner work, in parallel with changing the cultural fabric of our organizations. We’re not just changing our structure or our decision-making; we’re changing our culture to be one where everyone can reconnect with their deeper purpose and show up as whole people in the workplace. That’s incredibly hard, and takes all of us doing our personal work to better understand ourselves, and then trusting each other to open up in new and beautiful ways.
- Knocking down the nonprofit industrial complex — Nonprofits follow a million invisible rules because we get taught that’s just how things have to be. We can do better than that. At RVC, we critically analyze “best practices” to unpack what’s actually best for us and for our partners. We don’t always get it right, and it can be incredibly hard to machete our way through the overgrowth of laws and funder requirements that choke the sector, but we have to keep trying. And hopefully we can clear new paths not only for ourselves, but also for and with our partners.
- Moving beyond the “hierarchical or flat” dichotomy of org structures — To be clear, we’re not trying to explode into some messy flat organization where every decision requires an all-staff meeting in which we take hours to come to consensus. Far from it. Self-managing organizations already exist all over the world, both as for-profits and nonprofits. There are lots of different flavors: teal organizations, holacracy, sociocracy, the list goes on. We are still figuring out which flavor will be tastiest for us, and we know that Reinventing Organizations does a solid job of articulating what we’re committed to. Self-management is key, as it ensures power is distributed to the right places and that there’s a deep learning orientation in the organization, one in which feedback flows freely in support of folks making healthy decisions. It also requires a culture that supports everyone showing up as whole people, and that the organization itself has an evolutionary purpose, in which everyone in the organization understands the core mission and values of the organization and can channel that in order to make important strategic decisions. This is a radical departure from looking up at the senior leaders and expecting them to be the holders of all things related to strategy.
So it’s crucial that we make 2020 a transition year. We have two badass fellowship programs, a rapidly growing operations support program, and a capacity-building program busily rethinking how we strengthen nonprofits of color. And we also need to fit in time to breathe! — as well as figure all this out.
A note on identity and power
The other common question I get is, “Ananda, why aren’t you the permanent Executive Director?” Beyond everything outlined above, let’s be real: I am not the right person to be the face of RVC. Yes, I am proudly Latinx. And yes, I also benefit from a ton of white-presenting privilege.
Having that light-skin privilege, as well as not being an immigrant or refugee, means that my lived experience is radically different from many of the folks RVC serves. RVC’s leadership should reflect the folks we serve: a beautifully diverse array of badass Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
While I’m happy to step into shared leadership structures that strengthen RVC when invited to do so, it’s just as important to me that I know when to step back. Since we’re still figuring out what leadership structure best fits RVC, we may not even end up with a single person holding the title of ‘Executive Director,’ but rather have Co-Executive Directors or some other format that better conveys our distributed leadership structure.
In the meantime, I am honored to be playing a role in supporting our many amazing leaders to step more deeply into their power as we figure out the best path forward together.
And we need you too
We’re going to try to learn out loud and share it all with the sector so that maybe you all won’t have to make every single mistake we make. If you want to help, please toss some money our way so that we can comfort our staff with frozen chimichangas and mochi donuts when role-mapping and practicing feedback get too exhausting. And if you’re doing similar work at your organization, we’d love to hear from you. Let’s learn together!