NF Plan Bulletin #5

The role of a Board in a self-managed organisation

The New Future Plan (NF Plan) calls for the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) to evolve into an organisation (NVC-O) organised in new ways, offering the potential for more to get done, in service to the NVC community and to expanding the vision of what NVC can contribute to the world. This bulletin addresses how those new ways of organising will affect the CNVC Board of Directors.

Shift to self-management

Traditional nonprofit organisations rely on a Board of Directors directing and monitoring an Executive Director, who directs and monitors “managers,” who direct and monitor “workers.” (In a small organisation, intermediate roles like “managers” may be absent.)

The NF Plan calls for the new organisation that CNVC is evolving into, NVC-O, to instead be self-managed. In this model, self-managed work-groups (called Weaves) do the work of the organisation, coordinating with one another as needed. There are no limits to the number of Weaves, or the number of people (Partners) who can serve in these Weaves. Partners and Weaves are empowered to make decisions without funneling those decisions through a centralised group like the Board. As a result, the capacity of the organisation to address important matters is expected to be much larger than it has been with the old organisational design.

Those used to a more traditional way of organising may be challenged to imagine how this design could work. Yet, Frederic Laloux has identified successful companies which demonstrate that this way of doing things can and does work, and has many benefits. This was a significant inspiration to many people who worked on the New Future Plan.

NF Plan Bulletin #2 discussed some of the mechanisms planned to support self-management working in NVC-O.

Role of the Board in a self-managed organisation

In a small organisation, it is common for the Board to be the place where any complicated or important decision gets decided (or “falls through the cracks” and doesn’t get decided).

Under the principles of self-management, which is at the heart of how the NF Plan calls for the CNVC/NVC-O to function going forward, there are other, more appropriate places for most decisions to be made. It would be contrary to the principles of this approach to funnel important decisions through any one particular group.

Within the self-management paradigm, the job of a Board is not to make the important decisions on behalf of the organisation, but to champion others making decisions in ways that are aligned with the principles of self-management. To support transition towards this model, it is important and useful to look at any decisions that a Board would traditionally make, or would want to make, and to ask who might be well-positioned to make that decision? Someone might be well-positioned because they are the one who would be implementing the decision or who will most readily see its effects. If nobody is well-positioned to make the decision, then that might be an indication that it would be good for the Board to invite the creation of a new system. It is critical to the philosophy of self-management that decision-making about the most important matters is decentralised, so that everyone has full access to participating in important decisions.

Incorporated for-profit and nonprofit organizations have a Board because it is a legal requirement. The Board is responsible for ensuring that the legal entity is managed prudently and complies with its purpose and applicable laws and regulations. However, there are different options for how a Board cares for its responsibility.

Traditionally, a Board assumes a position at the top of a decision-making and power hierarchy. It decides what people in the organisation should do and “holds them accountable” by delivering consequences if work is not done as directed or does not meet expectations. This design expresses various assumptions about people and how work best gets done. It assumes that people at the top, because they are ultimately responsible, know best, while all others are not to be trusted with decision-making and need to be monitored and corrected.

Frederic Laloux’s study of self-managed organisations suggests that this traditional approach, which he calls “command and control,” is often far less effective or necessary than people imagine. It wastes significant energy, and blocks people in the organisation from taking full responsibility, by requiring a few people to be “in charge” of others and to bear “ultimate responsibility.”

In contrast, self-managed organisations invite, trust, and support everyone to take full personal responsibility for caring for the organisation and its purpose. When people in an organisation are given this chance and offered supportive conditions, it turns out they are perfectly capable of doing this. Laloux found that trusting and giving full responsibility to everyone typically results in the organisation being better cared for than when full trust and responsibility are granted only to those at the top of a hierarchy.

Based on these principles, it is critical that the Board of a self-managed organisation (or an organisation transitioning towards self-management) cares for the organisation by doing everything it can to ensure that the system of self-management is strong and functional. This could entail making the structural legal changes that allow more people to influence and make decisions, providing as much relevant information as possible about current systems or conditions so that members of the organisation can make informed decisions, and surfacing issues that those who have not participated in decision-making before may not know about. With regard to most issues, the Board making decisions, rather than coaching others to make wise decisions, is likely to undermine the goal of healthy self-management. So, paradoxically, refraining from decision-making and resisting the habit or pressure to claim sole responsibility and authority as a Board constitutes a deep practice through which the Board of a self-managed organisation cultivates the well-being of the organisation.

In this model, the role of a Board member becomes mostly one of mentor and advisor, more than decision maker. The Board still ensures that the legal responsibilities of a Board are addressed. However, this is mostly done through ensuring that others understand and address the needs involved. This change in the definition of the role doesn’t in any way reduce the opportunity to be a decision maker. It simply means that those who are drawn to decision making will naturally be drawn to take on other roles, where they will be closer to the effects of the decisions that they are making. The ideal qualification for a Board member becomes being deeply inspired by, and knowledgeable about, helping the organisation to self-manage.

A shift to self-management leads to more people sharing the work of being responsible for the organisation, more power sharing, and more opportunity for people to influence key decisions.

Changing how the parts relate to one another

The evolution of CNVC into NVC-O involves a paradigm shift, with regard to how things are organised.

In recent years, the CNVC Board has tried to support a degree of self-management for the CNVC Staff. Yet, the organisation has continued to be structured in a manner that is typical of organisations using a top-down “command and control” management strategy (see figure above labeled “Past”):

  • The Board has been ultimately “in charge.”

  • The Board has self-selected its own members.

  • The Board has governed the CNVC legal entity.

  • The CNVC legal entity has supported the CNVC organisation.

  • As needed, the Board has managed the CNVC organisation.

This design put a huge amount of both responsibility and power into the hands of the members of the Board.. The Board has generally consisted of a small group of part-time volunteers. Because most important matters ultimately had to go through the Board, this has often led to Board members feeling overwhelmed. There have been severe limits on how much attention the Board could give to listening to those outside the Board, and how many issues could be addressed.

The new organisational design alters the relationship between the Board and the organisation, to support alignment with the philosophy of self-management (see figure above labeled “Future”):

  • The Partners who make up the organisation will be ultimately “in charge.”

  • Through the Partners, the organisation will self-manage.

  • The Partners of the organisation will select the members of the Board. (Note that the  transition plan calls for members of the CNVC Board and CNVC Staff to become Partners and thereby influence Board selection.)

  • The Board, per its legal responsibilities, will attend to the CNVC legal entity (and mentor the organisation).

  • The CNVC legal entity will support the organisation, which might be thought of as either NVC-O or CNVC. (See NF Bulletin #4 for the ways in which these are nearly the same thing.)

This design moves the responsibility of being the “ultimate decision makers” away from the Board. This eliminates the decision-making bottleneck that has often limited decision-making in the past, and could provide significant relief from the overwhelm that tends to happen when most responsibility is placed on just a few people.

Legal details of transitioning to self-management and expanding decision-making in CNVC

U.S. law supports structuring nonprofit organisations for self-management, because nonprofit corporations like CNVC have the option of being membership organisations. In a membership organisation, the members are, to varying degrees, the ultimate decision-makers. Members typically select those who serve on the Board. If an organisation also empowers the members to be the ones who can change the corporate bylaws, that makes the members into the ultimate decision makers.

CNVC is technically already a membership organisation, according to the existing CNVC bylaws. However, no one has ever been granted legal membership in CNVC. As a result of the absence of members, the CNVC Board has been in a position to select additional Board members directly (or re-select themselves).

The CNVC transition plan that was agreed to by representatives of the CNVC Board, Staff and the New Future Integration Council calls for the NVC-O Partners to become the ultimate decision makers,  in accordance with the principles of self-management.. (Note that the CNVC transition plan calls for members of the Board and Staff to become Partners, so they will be among those that the model empowers.) To achieve this:

  • Partners will be defined to be the members of the corporation (CNVC).

  • The membership will be empowered to select Board members and alter the bylaws.

Staff representation on Board

The plan calls for a representative of the Staff to have a seat on the CNVC Board.

Steps to implement the changes

The plan is for changes to occur incrementally, a little bit at a time, rather than all at once.

  1. Aspects of self-management were slated to begin at the beginning of the Implementation Phase. For example, it was agreed that the CNVC Staff and the Implementation Council would collaboratively make decisions about a shared budget.

  2. Structural alignment was planned to happen through the CNVC Board ratifying bylaws changes to make the Partners the members of CNVC, with the members being empowered to select Board members and make future bylaw changes.

  3. Self-management is expected to emerge incrementally, with the support and encouragement of the CNVC Board and the Implementation Council.

    1. Mechanisms for addressing organisational functions in a self-managed way can emerge as they are ready to do so.

    2. Everyone is encouraged to notice and act on opportunities to shift towards making decisions in more self-managed ways, and to function in ways more aligned with NVC-O’s agreed ways of operating.

    3. Because there is no date when, suddenly, everything will be cut over to new way of doing things, there is no danger of the new systems “not being ready in time.” Any function that does not yet have a mechanism for being performed in a self-managed way can be performed in the old way, until the new way is ready.

    4. Tending to opportunities to move towards the new way of doing things will be both necessary and sufficient to create eventual full alignment with the new model.

  4. CNVC Staff and Board members become Transitional Partners in NVC-O by going through an Onboarding Process, once those who are involved in the implementation of NVC-O have prepared the Onboarding process.

  5. A Staff representative will be added to the Board. This might happen by amending the bylaws to reflect this, or by establishing an agreement among the Partners that one member of the CNVC Board will be selected in this way.

  6. Once other steps have completed, the CNVC bylaws will be further amended to reflect the organisation being self-managed.

    1. The intention will be to clarify the Board’s new role and shield the Board as much as possible from expectations that it should manage the organisation (rather than simply focusing on what it is essential for them to do and encouraging others to make decisions whenever possible).

    2. These changes to the bylaws will happen after the essential functions of CNVC have transitioned to self-management, and Staff and Board members have become Transitional Partners.


In summary, the CNVC Board will be affected by the NF Plan as follows:

  1. The job of the Board will become more focused on mentorship, and less focused on decision-making. It will be critical to reorient to supporting self-management, by encouraging others to make decisions whenever possible.

  2. Instead of the Board self-selecting and managing the organisation, the organisation will self-manage and select the Board. This will create alignment between the structure of the organisation and the principles of self-management.

  3. A Staff representative will be given a seat on the CNVC Board.

Change will happen incrementally, with different changes happening at different points in time. There will be no need for any sudden, large changes to happen all at once.