The History of COCo’s Collective Structure

This year, COCo is celebrating our 20th anniversary. For the occasion, we thought we would look back at a major part of that history: our experiments with collective structure (or collaborative, co-managed, or non-hierarchical- whatever you want to call it)! We hope that this, and other articles we will be publishing on the topic, will help other organizations exploring these questions.

Phase 1: Co-Directors & Executive Director (2000-2006)

When COCo was founded, it worked with a “Co-Directorship”. Our two Directors were at the core of managing the organization’s stakeholders and staff. If you want to read more about co-directorship, check out this article

The co-directors were at the heart of decision making. In part, this made sense for the time because the organization had little to no funding and was just getting started on defining its purpose and vision. A smaller circle of ownership allowed us to closely monitor the development of the organization’s early years. The goal wasn’t about widening the circle of influence just yet. 

The Board of Directors in this early period was largely a “rubber stamp” style Board and followed the lead of the staff. As the organization grew, it built an advisory committee and a wider, more open, and actively involved Board of Directors. 

Part of the way through this period, the organization transitioned to having a single Executive Director. This was partly because one Director was full time and the other was part time. The balance of work and power had started to become unmanageable. 

By 2006, COCo had secured core funding and had a team of trainers/facilitators in place. The two people who had been most involved in the organization’s founding moved away from leadership roles. This was the groundwork for our second major transition toward a co-managed organization. However, it was also the setting for a turbulent period to come! 

Phase Two: Experimentation with Holocracy (2006-2009) 

In 2006, COCo decided to try and build a more collective structure. The idea was that the organization would be run by small teams (“hubs”). Each “hub” would be responsible for a different area of the organization (finances, programming, specific projects, facilitation, etc.), with a central hub that addressed issues that couldn’t be dealt with by one or more outer hubs. The central hub would be made up of representatives from other hubs, but could be attended by any member at any time. All hubs, including the central hub, would have a designated facilitator. You can see other examples of organizations using structures like this one here.

The hope was that this kind of collective structure would emphasize group roles/accountability over individual roles and accountability. In general, our structure mirrored the governance models of other nonprofits with a Board of Directors, an Executive Committee, and a Board Committee. Our major focus was not as much about our structure, but about how we were working together. We wanted to organize ourselves around human energy, focus on open communication and on-going dialogue, and have a structure and processes that were flexible, experimental, and open. 

In practice, this new structure developed in a piecemeal way. The transition that we were going through (including the loss of an ED and other staff members) meant that a lot of energy needed to go into managing the organization’s daily operations. With a reduced staff, we had to keep things running smoothly while bringing in new people and letting some of our old structures go. At the time, COCo had 4 in-office staff members, a group of part-time staffers, and a bunch of facilitators who worked mostly outside the office. 

In that early structure, COCo had many small working groups, with specific people attached to these different groups to help understand who was responsible for what. Nothing was formalized, and as one person put it, 

“We were making it up as we went along. Our philosophy was that a structure needed to grow out of our work together.” 

This turned out to be a strategy that didn’t work. There was a lot of confusion, and accountability was not clear. In the absence of a clear process, team members leaned on old ways, and relied on what was present already: power dynamics, seniority, existing skill sets. “That’s not the way we do things around here” was a frequent refrain. Communication broke down within the team, as well as between the Board and staff, and the organization came to a standstill. 

One reflection from this period is about the importance of building trust and, more specifically, recognizing that accountability is built through trust. Trust develops by working with each other and creating a space for dialogue. With a new crew (Board and staff), a lot of ambiguity, and little time to talk through things in a structured way, it was difficult to build that trust. The work continued to get done, but relationships suffered.

Many people reflecting on this period also talk about an excess of dialogue as being a problem: 

“When things weren’t clear, we talked about it. We talked a lot. We tried to use new words to help us try new things. “Training” became “facilitation”, “committee” turned to “hubs”. – Staff Member 

A Board member at the time reflected that: 

“We all had a positive desire for change but got bogged down with many, many discussions about structure—there were people who wanted a “deep, meaningful” discussion around transformation and fulfillment, which is great to talk about in regards to learning organizations – but to what extent? How much internal discussion is too much internal discussion? How do you move forward, and when?” – Board Member, 2007

At this point, COCo hired an outside facilitator to help us create a collective understanding of the challenges and opportunities we were experiencing and how to move forward. This also required getting on the same page about where we were departing from and why. A working group was created that led the staff and Board through a series of conversations. This working group tried to research existing collective structures from other organizations, and use those as examples to build on. In this regard, we are particularly indebted to Interpares in Ottawa and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in NYC. We developed more clearly defined roles and job descriptions through looking at what inspired us (where our energy was) and looking at the needs of the organization.

Phase 3: The “Coordinating Group” Model In Practice (2009-2011) 

By 2009, the collective “hub” structure was more fully developed, with clear mandates, members and accountability mechanisms developed for each hub. In addition to a collection of hubs, a central hub called a Coordinating Group (CoG) was created. The CoG consisted of participation from 3 central areas of COCo: one member from the Finance Hub, one from the HR Hub and one from the Governance Hub. Other staff members were always welcome to participate in meetings.

The “coordinating group” had a mandate of:

  • Reviewing COCo’s functioning from a global perspective (financial, human, governance) and making sure things didn’t fall through the cracks 
  • Coordinating organization-wide planning and evaluation – especially related to programming, learning and reflecting.
  • Working together to come up with recommendations for approval and discussion by the staff or Board, especially on issues relating to finance, HR, and governance.
  • Facilitating organization-wide changes

One key realization was that more clarity about responsibilities and expectations (both at an individual and group level) meant more ownership over the work, team members invested in their mandate, and having more leaders in more areas. Job descriptions existed, but our approach to them was open and flexible, balancing the needs, interests and capacities of individuals with the needs of the organization as a whole.

One area where we experienced the most unclarity was around human resources (the HR role). What would be the focus and responsibilities of this role? Could it be held by a single coordinator? How could we effectively do human resources together?

Around this time, the COCo team grew to about 10 people, all on payroll and working out of the office, but all under 30 hours a week and many closer to 20. We hardly had any  “external trainers” working contractually. 

Phase 4: The “COCoQuake” (2011) 

COCo hit its first serious challenge with regards to its collective structure when a combination of lack of oversight, expertise, and communication resulted in a serious budgetary crisis (including reduced hours and layoffs). This series of events brought about major questioning among staff about the current functioning of the organization. We saw the need for putting much more rigorous systems in place for financial management, control and oversight.  At this point, the staff team size reduced down again to about four people. 

Phase 4: A Structure in Evolution (2012) 

COCo took on a review of its collective structure in 2012. There were a number of recommendations that came from this review process:

  • Communication. The difference between “CoG” meetings and staff meetings had become blurry, and both meetings felt rushed
  • Role Clarity and Competence. Frequent and rushed rotation of roles was causing problems (lack of competence or interest in certain key roles, for example). COCo needed to hire folks with specific administrative skills, and be careful about asking people to take on new roles without offering sufficient support or training 
  • Team Size. Almost all staff were part time, and this made democratic decision-making difficult 
  • HR. COCo had a serious lack of clarity and procedures around HR decisions, such as who took on responsibility for  performance management, discipline, or termination
  • Board Engagement. COCo was not always clear on how  to engage the Board in its collective management, and how to more clearly define the different roles of Board versus Staff as we experimented with collective management. You can read more about our reflections on Board engagement in collective organizations here. 
  • Staff vs Board Decisions. There was a lack of clarity about decision making between staff and Board

Phase 5: The Present (2019)  

At this point, changes are being brought about slowly so that we can improve the functioning of our collective structure. This includes the following

  • The idea of a “CoG” has been replaced by staff meetings where  major decision making takes place. 
  • The staff is composed of more full-time members (4 days a week). This facilitates everyone’s participation in collective decision making  
  • The team of affiliate facilitators (who are contractual workers) do not participate in our decision-making processes. 
  • We have worked to better define the role of an HR Coordinator. It has become clear that this role is essential.  
  • We have started having smaller committees (hubs) so that portfolios that are tightly intertwined (like finance and HR) can have regular meetings and planning support outside of the staff meetings 

COCo has a team of 9 people working out of the office, and a group of about 12 outside facilitators who work part time on different COCo contracts.

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Interested in learning more about our structure?