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From pyramid to network: Colorado's Civic Canopy dumps its hierarchical structure

Civic Canopy.jpg
Posted at 4:04 PM, Nov 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-23 18:57:27-05

DENVER – The Colorado nonprofit Civic Canopy is changing its organizational structure.

The Civic Canopy, which helps organizations across Colorado create social changes, is moving away from a pyramid-like hierarchy structure.

“We're looking to figure out ways that we share decision making and share power across our organization,” said Kale McMonagle, Civic Canopy collaboration director. “It's not something where you have a point at the top or anything like that. An executive director is traditionally in charge of things like the finances, working with the board and governance, maybe fundraising, personnel and HR things. Well, those are all functions of an organization that help keep it afloat, in addition to the actual work we do. So rather than putting those all on the shoulders of one person, we're just spreading those out.”

McMonagle said the organization is now shaped like a web or network.

“Within this structure, we have to be peers to each other and be comfortable giving each other feedback, instead of sending it up the chain, per se. And that's a different type of communication. And it's not something we're particularly comfortable with all the time, but we are working on it,” McMonagle said.

“I think my experience has been, you know, with being at the top of a hierarchy comes a lot of responsibility. Often, many of my peers in the role of executive director talk a lot about burning out, losing energy over time. And I feel like this has really been an extraordinary second wind in a career to distribute that sense of ownership and leadership for an organization much more broadly amongst the team,” said Bill Fulton, Civic Canopy executive director.

The organization is made up of a team of 10 people. Fulton said it may be harder for larger organizations to replicate the structural change, but it’s still possible.

“I’ve thought a lot about that. What I've come to believe is that it's easier in our situation with fewer employees, but a lot of the principles are being tried in organizations everywhere of all sizes,” Fulton said. “Really, in some ways, this is an old idea of egalitarian structures. In some ways, you know, every Indigenous culture that ever existed in the globe found a way to balance power in a circle of elders and figure out ways to, to share things more equitably.“

Project coordinator Morgan Schmel believes the change will make Civic Canopy more effective.

“I see this move towards more of a network as something that can respond and evolve,” Schmel said. “A lot of the structures that we're creating have required an incredible amount of creativity and rethinking things over and over again, that the first idea that you have might not actually be the best one because it might actually reflect a lot of the structures that we're used to living within… we are hearing from folks that this kind of experiment that we're doing is really exciting.”

Schmel said the team wants to build on that excitement and continue implementing internal changes that have larger, external impacts.