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Who’s the Boss?

The traditional focus of nonprofit decision-making practice has been a discussion around the allocation of authority and responsibility among those at the top of the organizational pyramid. Which decisions require the approval of the chief executive (and is she functioning as a manager or a leader)? Which decisions should be delegated to others (and are they really empowered or on a short leash)? Which decisions require the prior approval of, consultation with, or notice to your boss (and when should you lead or follow him)? Which decisions are the boards’ to make (and do they understand the distinction between governance and management)?

Although some of these principles will always apply to the exercise of organizational decisions, a provocative Harvard Business Review article suggests that recent societal forces are turning the organizational power pyramid on its head. In “Understanding ‘New Power’“, authors Jeremy Heimans (a political activist and CEO of movement-building social business and Henry Timms (Executive Director of 92nd Street Y and founder of #GivingTuesday) suggest that the disruptive democratization of control that has been most evident through the widespread adoption of social media is not limited to technology and is now permeating virtually all organizational power structures.

In their view, “Old power…is held by few…jealously guarded…closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures. New power…is made by many…is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.” Heimans and Timms have developed a “Participation Scale,” which defines increasing levels of people’s desire for organizational involvement, beyond mere consumption of products and services:


The Participation Scale, Harvard Business Review, December 2014


These participation principles may seem familiar to arts and culture groups that have seen the Audience Involvement Spectrum, developed by WolfBrown as part of its “Getting In On the Act” report for The James Irvine Foundation. What may be more revolutionary for the professional and volunteer leaders of arts groups to consider is the impact that a shift from “old power values” to “new power values” could have, not just on audience participation, but on every aspect of artistic and organizational decision-making.


New and Older Power Values


Clearly, some decisions warrant adherence to traditional power dynamics, while others merit application of the new values. The question is whether you and your colleagues are aware of and intentionally adapting to this shift in power values where it is in your organization’s interest to do so? And, when you make a decision to continue to operate within the framework of “old power values,” are you doing so consciously in a belief it will better fulfill your public service mission, or out of an unconscious fear of the loss of control that “new power values” may require?

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