The single-executive model has long dominated organizational structures in all three sectors: business, government, and philanthropy. Of course, examples of co-leadership and distributed leadership models have always existed, providing important foils to the default, pyramid-shaped hierarchy. However, among the many forces and values currently disrupting philanthropy, a push to reject organizational structures that are seen as overly burdensome, regressive, and even harmful is gaining ground.

Today, nonprofits are increasingly embracing non-traditional structures such as co-leadership, co- or multi-executive directorship, worker self-direction, and fiscal sponsorship as opportunities to create more sustainable and mission-driven programs.

In their article, “Innovations in Talent Investment for Individuals, Organizations, and Communities,” Sharp Eizinger et al. (2022) highlighted the emerging trend of co-leadership and distributed leadership models and their benefits, such as “supporting more diverse talent and making leadership roles more sustainable” (para. 15) in an often lonely, under-resourced, and multi-hat-wearing role. This trend is flourishing.

For instance, Kathy Im (2021), director of Journalism & Media at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, reported on the proliferation of co-leadership models among grantee partners in “Reimagining Nonprofit Leadership Models.” Im named half a dozen organizations with two or more executive directors, also writing that “we notice that leaders who are not bound by traditional notions of organizational structure are also more likely to be empathetic and proactive about the mental health and personal well-being of leaders and staff” (para. 8).

The Bridgespan Group also interviewed three organizations that had adopted a co-leadership model to better understand their experiences: Catholic Family Service in Alberta, Canada; East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in Commerce, California; and ProInspire in Washington, D.C. Bridgespan shared their findings in March 2022, revealing these organizations’ desire for collaboration, skill-sharing, and power-sharing, all in concert with their values (Chary).

In our research for this article, it became clear that many other factors are contributing to the change, as well. Organizations adopting these new models all have their reasons; some are unique, but many echo one another.

  • Disrupting the cycle of burnout. The executive director role is notoriously lonely, with individual leaders frequently called upon to be all things to all people. Dividing up the responsibilities of a single position across many people or roles can ease the mental, emotional, and workload burden so that leadership becomes more sustainable and rooted in both skill and experience.
  • Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Michael Courville, Natalie Blackmur, and Michael Arnold of Open Mind Consulting (2019) asked the important question, “Is there a relationship between organizations’ efforts to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and the practices and cultural orientation required of distributed leadership?” (para. 2).

    Many nonprofit practitioners are embracing these new organizational models as a means of advancing DEI goals. Creating new leadership roles within an organization automatically means there are more such roles available in the field; new leaders do not have to wait for current leaders to leave their positions.

  • Succession planning and gradual leadership transitions. Jari Tuomala, Donald Yeh, and Katie Smith Milway (2018) found in their research that “[nonprofit founder] transitions that paired a founder in a continuing role with a successor from inside the organization proved to be the most successful of all transition models we examined, based on revenue growth through the transition, retention of the successor, and self-reported performance” (para. 6).

Read the full article about nonprofit structural models by Mandy Sharp Eizinger and Tory Martin at Johnson Center.