Setting up your nonprofit the way you play with LEGOs

Tali Blankfeld - Getty


I’ve had a Harry Potter LEGO castle in the corner of my living room for about a decade. My kids are big now – my son a junior in college and my daughter a senior in high school. We are mostly free of plastic toys and technicolor accessories. But the castle remains, in part because I don’t know what to do with the pieces. I never really thought LEGO sets were that much fun – there was the satisfaction of putting them together, but once complete, they were kind of ugly, bumpy, boring toys. There is a whole world of MOCs (My Own Creations) – in which kids (or adults) create their own sculptures using the disassembled pieces of a LEGO kit – but we were neither creative enough nor dedicated enough to take that initiative in my house. I wonder what cool things my kids would have built if I had named that possibility for them.

I sometimes think of that LEGO castle when I am looking at nonprofit organizations. The vast majority are constructed with the parts in the kit, according to the instructions: the Executive Director goes here, the board here, you put the budget in this tube, and these salaries come out. And you often end up with something that does a perfectly fine job of running after school programs, advocating for a fair wage, housing stray animals, or providing senior services. But what if we could take those organizations apart – and really look at each piece and think about its ideal function? Would we design the executive director’s job the way most organizations use it today? Would we recreate a single person in charge of fundraising, program quality, board management, budgeting, and public-facing communication – regardless of organizational size, mission, or geography? Would we design boards of directors as a group of people from different fields, usually not experts in the organization’s mission or from the community served, in charge of hiring and supervising the executive director, raising money, making sure the budget is well-spent, and speaking on behalf of the organization? What about funding structures, HR policies, the work week, business attire, offices … would we recreate those the way we use them now, if we were starting from scratch? Or instead, would we look at the desired purpose of the organization and think more creatively about what qualities, expertise, experience, roles and responsibilities best support the mission, and create different kinds of organizational structures?

Some people and institutions are much more imaginative about their organizational structures than my kids and I were about our Legos. The Building Movement Project has long researched and documented alternative leadership structures, and their organization is led by co-directors. RVC Seattle has a carefully thought-through model of shared and distributed leadership, and has just launched a four person co-executive director team. An organization called Change Elemental has been reimagining leadership on the board level too – and has changed the name from ‘board of directors’ to ‘governance team’ to shift mindset on responsibilities and relationship to staff. The Park Slope Food Coop has been a nonprofit cooperative for 49 years. And maybe we don’t need so many organizations at all – maybe some of us could merge, or share staff or infrastructure, and maybe some of us don’t need to be 501c3s at all?

If this emerging post-pandemic moment invites anything for nonprofit organizations (and for all of us), it is to rethink how we have always done business. I think it would be exciting to throw away those instruction manuals and think more creatively about how to get from here to there. There is no doubt that we will end up with some ugly, bumpy structures that don’t really work, but I bet we will find some cool ways to fit the pieces together in new ways. And to get rid of those dusty old castles sitting in the corner.