This second Campaign Case Study is part of a series of stories that will share the experience of organisations that grasp the importance of cultural values in third sector campaigning. We hope that these real-life examples of transformation inspire and empower you to push organisational boundaries and improve how we campaign together.
If you’d like to discuss these stories, or find out more about them, come along to the Campaigning with Common Cause get-together every second Wednesday of the month.
“We’re not tied to what it looks like, we’re tied to what works.”
The Otesha Project UK mobilises young people to create social and environmental change through their everyday lives. They run cycle tours every summer – helping young people to live low-impact lives and inspire others using workshops and theatre in schools, youth clubs and communities. They also incubate youth-led Change Projects and anchor the East London Green Jobs Alliance.
Otesha has five permanent staff, and three interns who are paid a London living wage.
I spoke to Founder and Project Director Liz McDowell and Communications and Fundraising Director Gavin McGregor about their transition to a flat, shared-responsibility structure.
What did they set out to do differently?
Otesha staff have used consensus decision-making for a number of years, and there is a strong culture of facilitation and anti-oppression work. On paper, however, the charity had a CEO and a clear hierarchy. Because of this, it wasn’t always easy to work truly alongside each other; the CEO was responsible for staff appraisals, for example.
The team decided they wanted to move to a flat structure to bring consensus decision-making and shared responsibility to the core of how Otesha works. This would also be reflected in team wages, meaning a flat salary for the whole team.
They recognise that this is an experiment. They know that they probably won’t get it right the first time and are not tied to what it looks like, but are instead tied to what works. “This feels like it’s the way it should be run" explained Liz.
Why move to a flat structure?
- Share the workload, and thus responsibility: Particularly in the early start-up phase, the workload fell disproportionately on Liz. This additional workload then also meant her voice carried more weight in communal decisions. Now, tasks such as HR, office management, and finance are distributed among the permanent staff, and rotate every two years so that everyone understands and can manage each of the administrative tasks.
- Organisational resilience: As Liz, the founder, is moving back to her native Canada within the next twelve months, there was a clear need for organisational sustainability. From now on, new staff members are explicitly requested to stay for at least four years to ensure deep knowledge transfer.
- Reflect their values in practice: As a youth-led education organisation, it was important to give interns more responsibility in the team – they are now part of the consensus decision-making process. Moreover, Otesha uses consensus when they lead trainings and on their cycle tours, so using it as a core team reflected how they trained other groups to work.
- Focus on impact rather than growth: There is enormous pressure for new enterprises to scale up quickly, with a burst of new employees as fast as possible. A flat model would likely not work on a larger scale, though there are some examples. Otesha sees ‘reaching scale’ as having an impact on the wider sector, not as organisational growth. Their work on green jobs, collaborating with businesses, trade unions, educators and other NGOs is a good example of what this looks like in practice.
What did people think about it?
- Internally: The team was excited and ready for the transition. Trustees have been supportive, though some apprehension remains. What brought a lot of support from the board was the focus on organisational sustainability.
- Externally: There’s been a lot of interest from academics - a group of MBA students created the initial proposal for their new organisational structure, for example. Other social enterprises have questioned the model.
What surprised the team most?
For Liz, the transition felt like a huge weight off her shoulders, the job itself became much more enjoyable. Before the change, her leadership role could often become a lonely one, but the team feels much more like a community now. “Everyone is in everything together”.
Another surprise has been that this transition seems to be unique. “These are values that so many charities sign up to – to find out that we’re trailblazing is really surprising.”
What have they learned?
- Involve everyone from the beginning – especially the trustees. People care about what they help to create.
- This process doesn’t work well with freelancers joining for short amounts of time. A stable core team is fundamental.
- Have patience. This is a slow process, and if it is sped up unnaturally, it will fail.
Otesha has embedded its organisational values into the every-day decision making processes, meaning that a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility will endure beyond any individual staff members. By weaving together ways of working that encourage equality and friendship, Otesha is building a network where intrinsic values are prioritised.
What does this mean for us as change-makers?
If we want to work with values, it is clear that Common Cause has implications not just for what we do in the 'outside world', but also how we run our organisations internally. Organisational structures in the third sector - including management structures, decision-making processes, pay-structures and incentive schemes - will all have an impact on the values that third sector employees come to hold as important.
When we start to incorporate an awareness of cultural values into our activities, we will need to also begin to examine the values embedded in our own internal processes.