Deepening Our Distributed Leadership During a Time of Transition

By Ananda Valenzuela, Interim Co-Executive Director, and Jenna Ringelheim, Board Member 

Leadership transitions are often a challenging time for nonprofits, and the Whidbey Institute is no exception. In the wake of the pandemic and the departure of long-time leaders, our team lost its footing. It became clear that we needed to pause and find steady ground in order to strengthen our distributed leadership structure. In distributed leadership, decision-making power is spread throughout the organization instead of concentrated in the hands of one or more senior leaders at the top. Maintaining a structure that departs from the classic hierarchy requires proactive investment of time and energy from everyone involved. So when we engaged in a leadership transition, we realized that we needed to recommit to our self-managing organizational culture and structure, and reexamine what diversity, equity, and inclusion work entails.

For those unfamiliar with the Whidbey Institute, we are a non-profit retreat center that has been nurturing the conditions for transformational learning for over fifty years. We have an incredible lineage of leaders committed to Earth, Spirit, and the Human Future, bringing people together to learn and take action on 106 acres of conservation forest. With overnight accommodations for 42 and multiple gorgeous convening spaces just an hour outside of Seattle, we have had the honor of hosting an incredible array of programming over the past five decades. In 2014, it was a natural extension of the Institute’s dedication to transformational learning to deepen our commitment to alternative ways of running our organization. Leaning into the insights shared through Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations, the Whidbey Institute chose to adopt Holacracy, a particular approach to self-management that organizes roles and responsibilities into circles following a prescribed set of guidelines. While Holacracy supported our work together in many ways, the learning curve is steep. As our time and energy were stretched through a capital campaign and significant facilities construction from 2016-2020, it became challenging for everyone to engage in this way of thinking and working together.

When the pandemic hit, the self-organizing system both contributed mightily to navigating this difficult passage—making hard decisions and weathering challenges together—but also contributed to greater difficulty for the organization’s recovery. Over the three years of significant pandemic impact, we had lost the rhythm and rituals of in-person time together which had supported trustbuilding and sharing our self-organizing practices. When several long-standing staff chose to transition out during this stressful time of pandemic recovery, differences in values, perceptions, skills, and priorities around issues like anti-racism, power-sharing, decision-making, and programmatic priorities led to a wavering sense of direction.

Staff transitions are often challenging, especially when multiple long-time leaders depart. When these staff left, we attempted to turn inwards, asking remaining members of the team to step into leadership roles. But delays in hiring for needed roles caused incredible strain on an already small team. That added stress stoked the flames of interpersonal conflicts ranging from smaller issues to disagreements about how power and decision-making should be held. So the board and staff chose to hire Ananda Valenzuela as an Interim Co-Executive Director, due to his past experience with distributed leadership organizations and strong track record of facilitating collaborative change management processes at alternatively-structured organizations. An organizational assessment revealed a deep appreciation for the Whidbey Institute’s beautiful land and incredible staff, but the organization was struggling to maintain a healthy culture and attract staff that reflected the diversity of those the Whidbey Institute hopes to serve. There was work to be done in terms of structure, culture, and equity.

Reinvigorating Our Structure

The leadership transition was aggravated by the organization operating with a structure that not everyone understood, as many of Holacracy’s biggest champions had departed. Holacracy was an incredible gift to the Whidbey Institute, in that it gave us a roadmap for moving away from a classically hierarchical organizational structure. But Holacracy’s steep learning curve is not accessible to folks from all paths of life. In the words of one key stakeholder, “I like that Holacracy challenges the traditional power structures of hierarchy, but I dislike that it consolidates power in those most interested in the jargon.” And like any structure, Holacracy can be misused to serve personal purposes instead of the organizational mission. In a team of less than fifteen staff, it could feel distancing, with complex rules that could feel like a barrier to people just talking to one another. 

With Ananda’s expert facilitation, the staff and board came together to assess where we were, and realized that we did not need any radical changes to our overall structure; staff were flourishing in the autonomy offered by distributed leadership. Instead of reverting to a hierarchical structure, which can easily happen to organizations that risk trying something radically different, we were able to identify the true sources of our struggles: understaffing (which we moved quickly to address with amazing new hires at the outset of this process) and unhealthy patterns in our organizational culture. We decided to maintain our self-managing organizational structure but ceased to use Holacracy, which removed some of its constraints, such as the complicated terminology and rigid formats expected of meetings. We simplified our structure into three core teams, and recommitted to role mapping, clarifying who was responsible for what. Overall, we decided to default to individual decision-making using the Advice Process, which helped address some messy power dynamics that were aggravated by unclear decision-making processes. Importantly, by clearly identifying a single individual as the decision-maker, and celebrating a culture of “good enough” decisions, we were able to shift from lengthy decision-making processes with no clear decider to being able to move nimbly again and trust one another to make good decisions in each of our realms.

With this overall structural clarity, we recognized that the concept of “executive leadership” was fundamentally about holding the whole of the organization, with the primary responsibility to coach and support others in their decision-making, since decision-making power is distributed across the organization instead of concentrated in the hands of a few executive leaders. It’s still important to have one or a few people tending to overall organizational culture development, to center deep equity and ongoing learning, and to ensure that everyone is working towards the same North Star, facilitating effective strategic priority-setting processes that energize all the key stakeholders. And having that executive leadership also serve as the public face of the organization by fundraising and network-building is a natural way to ensure that the organization does not become too insular. So we looked internally first, and identified Rose Woods to serve as Co-Executive Director, bringing a long history on the island and a deep commitment to our ongoing equity learning, and we are now looking outside to hire our second Co-Executive Director to join Rose, who can help hold our overall strategic direction and usher the Whidbey Institute into its next fifty years. (Here’s the job description, by the way – maybe you know someone who would thrive in this role?)

Strengthening Our Culture

When the Whidbey Institute hosts a program like Tai Chi, you can see the beauty of self-management at work. The team fluidly follows its processes and reacts to issues with creativity, having the capacity to make decisions by themselves, without having to go to a “boss” for their stamp of approval. We have an abundance of leaders, each with particular strengths that align with their areas of responsibility, and we have moved our work forward despite the challenges of the pandemic and leadership transition. But everything isn’t perfect- which it never is!

In our case, it became clear that the foundation needed strengthening. In order for distributed leadership to be effective, there needs to be a high level of trust and accountability between staff. But we had fallen into some bad habits. During the assessment process, one stakeholder described a pattern in need of attention as “complaints without commitments. People who are saying ‘things are broken’ or ‘I don’t like this person,’ need to then say, ‘I am committed to fixing what is broken, repairing relationships.’” We had to take self-responsibility for moving with integrity together, investing emotional labor in deepening trust.

A core underlying issue contributing to that breakdown in trust was not sharing feedback in a direct and timely fashion. And admittedly, giving and receiving feedback directly can be challenging. It’s hard work to be vulnerable and admit your mistakes. But we concluded that we wanted to do that work, and that this was a necessary act of courage in order to have a healthy, joyful self-managing organization. 

So the team identified two key culture-building goals: deepen trust and improve communication. We developed a training calendar, aiming to integrate and reinforce these learnings by building them into practices and policies, ensuring everyone holds themselves accountable to playing by the same set of rules. The training topics we’re engaging with in the coming months are: 

This particular arc of work will address the core learning areas that our team self-identified as most important to invest in, and is the most visible aspect of the more invisible culture change work our team is engaged in every day. Already, there has been a palpable shift in energy; people both inside and outside of the organization can see the joy and creativity nourished by our culture.

Our Call to Action: Deep Equity Work

The Whidbey Institute has long recognized the primacy of equity work in order to build a more just and healthy future. In the words of our co-founder Fritz Hull, the Whidbey Institute was created fifty years ago “believing it was time to build loving and innovative alternatives to war, racial bitterness, suppression of women, and the devastation of the environment.” Equity is one of our core principles, acknowledging the imperative to dismantle systems of oppression, starting with our individual mindsets and ways of being. And part of that work is to take responsibility for our own history, and how those ramifications continue into the present day. Whidbey Island was originally called Tscha-kole-chy, and was home to the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, and Snohomish tribes for thousands of years until white settlers decided that the land was theirs for the taking, participating in the systemic genocide of indigenous people that occurred all across the continent. While indigenous people continue to live and thrive on Whidbey Island, they are now only about 1% of the overall population.

The ramifications of this history of systemic oppression continue into the present day. Currently Whidbey Island is, like many parts of the country, dealing with an affordable housing crisis. And given the longstanding nonprofit-sector-wide expectation that staff do important work for meager pay, this means that our staff are not paid enough to cover the true cost of living and thriving on this island, particularly if you don’t come from intergenerational wealth, own property, and/or have other incomes contributing to your household. Structurally, the system is set up to fail everyone, especially those most impacted by systemic injustice: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

All of this means that doing equity work cannot just mean putting the right words on our website. We need to break out of the scarcity mindset and shift to abundance. In the Whidbey Institute’s case, this starts with bringing in more revenue, in order to have the budgetary capacity to properly pay our team. Since the majority of our funding comes from earned revenue (people paying to use our facilities or participate in our programming), we revisited our rate structures, maintaining a subsidized rate for highly values-aligned nonprofits and raising our standard rates to reflect the true cost of using the land and facilities. We also added a Supporter rate tier, inviting those partners who have more wealth to share it, recognizing that a portion of the funds they’re paying will go directly to supporting those who would not otherwise be able to access our programming. Alongside robust fundraising, these shifts in our rate structures will hopefully move the Whidbey Institute in a direction where we can pay more equitable salaries and begin offering healthcare and related benefits.  

But equity work doesn’t stop at providing good pay. The core ongoing work is that of building a healthy, nourishing workplace that’s inclusive of BIPOC and folks with other forms of oppressed identities and/or abilities. This entails centering multiple ways of knowing and moving out of white dominant culture, which is messy yet crucial work. In the Whidbey Institute’s context, where most staff are white, a key issue that emerged was that each staff member was in a very different place in terms of their equity learning, doing varying amounts of equity work in their personal lives. 

In order for us to work well with people who are very different from ourselves, be it due to race, gender, ability, or other forms of identity, we need to learn the history that brought us to our present reality so that we understand the often-invisible forms of injustice and oppression that shape the world we live in. We each need to do racial healing on our own time, instead of bringing those messy, broken parts of us to the workplace and asking our colleagues to mend them for us.      

So we are developing baseline expectations that invite our staff and board members to do their own equity learning and healing work outside the office, in the same way that we do other personal growth work in order to be more effective in our jobs. We believe that doing this personal work is absolutely necessary in order for us to work together to achieve our mission in a values-aligned way. In the words of former Co-Executive Director Marnie Jackson, “There is a freedom available to all of us on the other side when we get real with the devastation racism has caused in our hearts, minds, bodies, and institutions.”

This is different from workplaces that try to check the box with a one-day diversity training. We can orient towards action in the workplace, adopting an equity lens in our decision-making instead of providing 101-level trainings. In tandem with this shift in expectations, we’re working with the Racial Healing Initiative and are engaged in active inquiry around what it means to center indigeneity in all aspects of our work. And we’re ensuring our board reflects the diversity we want to see in our staff and our programming, and inviting them into co-creating a governance structure that will hold the Whidbey Institute accountable to doing this ongoing work in a way that deeply aligns with our mission and values.

Will all of this work? We really hope so, because we deeply want more leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to join our team. We know that we’re missing vital perspectives necessary for the Institute to truly be a center for transformational learning. In particular, given the 106 acres of land that we steward, we hope to welcome in indigenous leadership to help shape our future direction. 

What’s Next? 

The Whidbey Institute remains a beautiful place. We hope you will visit soon, and take a walk in the woods to see what wisdom the trees have to offer you. Although our organizational transition has been intense at times, our small but mighty team has continued to steward this magnificent place with humility and grace. As we look forward, we want to welcome more values-aligned partners, both those that we will financially support and those who will help us provide financial support to others. This year’s calendar is quickly filling with quite an array of exciting programs and events, and we’re hoping that our new rate structure can give us the financial security to continue to build a strong foundation, so that we can be a transformational partner for many years to come. We’re incredibly thankful for the program leaders who have stayed with us through the tumult of the pandemic and our internal transitions, and we look forward to crafting more impactful offerings together in the coming years. If you would like to partner with us, please get in touch! 

We invite our colleagues, both at retreat centers and in the nonprofit sector more generally, to join us as we work towards a more just and equitable future. Changing how we operate internally helps us plant the seeds for alternatives that better align with our values. We hope that by vulnerably sharing our story, we can help others walk this path just a little bit more easily, and inspire more folks to reimagine what a healthy, joyful workplace could look like.

 


We want to acknowledge all who contributed their voice and perspective to this co-created piece: past, present and future staff, board members, and Whidbey Institute community members who have and continue to be a part of the rich tapestry of folks that steward this place.

 

Ananda Valenzuela, Interim Co-Executive Director: Ananda Valenzuela (any pronouns) provides interim executive director leadership, facilitates organizational transformation, and coaches values-aligned leaders. He is passionate about nourishing joyful organizational cultures, supporting equitable self-management, and building liberatory practices. They have served as interim executive director at multiple organizations, provided capacity-building support to nonprofits for over ten years, and currently sit on the boards of Change Elemental and Hampshire College. Ananda grew up in Puerto Rico and slowly made her way across the United States, holding a variety of consulting, governance, and activist roles along the way.

Jenna Ringelheim, Board Member:  Jenna Ringelheim (she/her) is passionate about developing leaderful practices within individuals, organizations and networks. Jenna is a skilled facilitator, coach and consultant, with a keen interest in human-centered HR and operations, program and retreat design, network weaving and building learning communities of practice. She is happiest when she is creating systems and structures that allow for greater agency, autonomy and shared learning. With 15+ years of nonprofit leadership, Jenna catalyzed and grew a network of over 1,500 changemakers as Deputy Director of the Environmental Leadership Program. She was also the Executive Director of Wild Gift, a wilderness-based leadership development program and international network of environmental entrepreneurs. More importantly, she is a proud pandemic parent, partner, dog enthusiast, and avid host in Portland, Oregon.

January 12, 2024

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Comments

  1. Tim Clark says:

    Hi, I’m a neighbor.

    One of the original members of the Chinook learning community.

    I’m very excited by your work.

    Looking forward to meeting.

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you Tim!

  2. Dear Whidbey Institute –staff — past, present and future !

    I am deeply touched by your open hearted, vulnerable sharing of your leadership challenges, hopes and dreams for the future. Thank you for your courage and willingness to openly share your process and for serving as valuable role models for much needed paradigm shifts not only within our organizations, but also within our families, communities, relationships and governments !
    We have enjoyed two past HSP Gathering Retreats at Whidbey Institute in 2005 and 2019 and know and honor the values, and principles embodied by your staff, past, present and future.

    I hope we can return to Whidbey for a future retreat. Meanwhile, you are all in my thoughts and prayers … for the continued evolvement of these highly desired and regarded ways of being, doing and connecting with one another.

    with love, appreciation, and care,

    Jacquelyn Strickland
    Co-founder with Dr. Elaine Aron of the
    HSP Gathering Retreats

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you for the feedback Jacquelyn! We hope to see you on the land in the near future.

  3. Mary Jakubiak says:

    Wow! Quite a read. I will need to read it all again and make sure I really got it all. But for now: congratulations on recognizing a need to change and having the courage to take the necessary steps. That in itself is a lesson the world needs. Be blessed!

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you for the positive feedback Mary!

  4. Thx Jenna. Thx all of you stewarding such beautiful and nourishing space. I’m grateful to have been on site for several events over the years! Here’s to such beautiful (and sometimes complex) continued learning and loving!

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you Tenneson!

  5. Sandy Bishop says:

    Really appreciate this honest and detailed reflection. Thank you for taking the time to inform us of your process and for using the tools of reflection to navigate your way while staying true to your core values.

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you Sandy!

  6. Julie Glover says:

    Good work, everyone! As a long-term supporter (and among other things, a retired organizational development consultant) I am very happy to read about all of this very good (and much-needed) work. The above statement is beautifully done, and I am proud of all of you!

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you for the positive feedback Julie!

  7. Kate Poss says:

    I tried reading all of this, and you could really benefit from getting to the meat of the whole story. I have long supported the Whidbey Institute as a person, and as a writer, and I find that this report on the state of this great place is too wordy, confusing and overwhelming. What has happened with the Whidbey Institute?

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you for the feedback Kate. I hope you continue to follow the Whidbey Institute’s journey.

  8. Barbara Schaetti says:

    Thank you for this strikingly honest review and update. As someone who was very actively involved with the Institute for some 8 years, namely working with both the distributed leadership and equity initiatives, I am delighted to read your plans for moving forward. I wish the Institute team all the very best.

    Again, thank you.

    1. Bryan McGriff says:

      Thank you Barbara!

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