Circular Staff Structure

In its lifetime, CPC has transitioned from a vertical/hierarchical structure into a flat/horizontal structure and now into a circular structure. Each shift represented a desire to create shared power.

The vertical structure included co-directors, which was a first step towards challenging traditional non-profit staff structures. Then, with the shift to a horizontal structure, responsibilities rotated and there was an expectation that everyone be able to do a little bit of everything. There was also an assumption and intention that conversations and decisions could be made collectively. However, the unintended impact of this structure was that it required new staff to come in to the organization with Executive Director level capacity and confidence, and created barriers for community members to become staff. Another unintended consequence was the difficulty in acknowledging the power that certain staff held due to factors such as seniority, gender, race and academic background because theoretically it was a flat structure.

CPC’s circular structure became a much more natural way to hold the work, more reflective of our commitment and practice of popular education as well as our recognition that we take strength from the natural world, where circles represent wholeness, life, and cycles. Within our circular structure, the top can shift to the side, sides can rotate up towards the top, etc. This means that depending on the type of decision being made, the circle rotates to reflect the “top” (who will be ultimately making the decision, whether it is core staff, circle coordinators, circle participants, or board.) Those on the side may be giving input and feedback to those at the top of the circle, while those at the bottom may be informed of the decision, but have a direct connection that allows for transparency and accountability.

Our approach to planning and evaluation of our Circle’s work has also shifted to support our circular model. We experienced many challenges with trying to maintain non-hierarchal processes that allowed for autonomy, flexibility and responsiveness to movement needs while not reverting to traditional non-profit models of planning and evaluating work if a Circle was struggling to meet its goals. We found that Circle co-coordinators and Circle participants need autonomy in determining their scope of work, their project goals and their activities to meet their goals. At the same time, each Circle needs to be accountable to the collective. Our new structure allows for input from the Full Circle, which ensures each Circle’s work remains rooted in the collective vision of CPC and aligned with our organizational strategies.

We have found that much of the work of creating a circular structure is in shifting the culture of the organization that lives within the structure. For staff that come from vertically organized non-profits or other experiences where power was implicit but not discussed, we all carry that with us.  It required a lot of work, trust, and making of mistakes until we were able to name issues with transparency and accountability within the structure. At a certain point it became clear that even though the structure had shifted, the culture was lagging behind. It became clear that we still were operating within a culture of feeling that “permission” had to be granted from those that held certain organizational power. The impact of this was there were Circle Coordinators who felt that they could not fully live in to their talents and brilliance without explicit permission or invitation from Core Staff. Once we could name that dynamic, we worked to create a culture of “proposal” where Circle Coordinators can articulate with confidence their vision and ideas, and fully step into the leadership that the organization has entrusted them with.  At the same time, we work to foster understanding that not all proposals can be carried out if Full Circle does not find it in alignment with organizational priorities or strategies, or if Core Staff finds it in conflict with its decisions around personnel and budget. This has created an interconnectedness around decision making and sharing of power.