By Nivetha Nagarajan, nonprofit data wrangler and labor organizer

And throughout the past five years, I’ve had this major question persistently nagging at me: why do we, by default, impose hierarchical power structures on work that is specifically meant to distribute power more equitably?

I’ve worked in nonprofits full-time for only five years – a relatively short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. However, one advantage of that short tenure is that I often question workplace cultural norms that others take for granted because being in the workforce itself is so new to me. 

Pre-pandemic, I would wonder why we were all forcing ourselves to make a tiring commute every day to do work that could just as easily be done from home. In 2020, I didn’t understand why we were often trying to replicate in-office ways of working when it seemed more expedient to entirely reimagine remote workflows in this new reality. And throughout the past five years, I’ve had this major question persistently nagging at me: why do we, by default, impose hierarchical power structures on work that is specifically meant to distribute power more equitably? 

There are so many aspects of the nonprofit industry that suffer from this problem of adopting for-profit power structures and norms wholesale. A few of the more popular examples are the inequitable relationships between grantors and grantees, as well as those between board members and staff. However, what I don’t see questioned as often are the internal hierarchies among nonprofit staff themselves. 

Having layers of directors, middle management, and frontline staff (even in small start-up organizations!) is so rooted in traditional, white, capitalist modes of thinking that it reinforces the societal marginalization of more junior frontline staff. The work also suffers for it since the people closest to the work and who often have lived experiences similar to the communities being served are sidelined in favor of those with professional nonprofit experience. This reflects the over-professionalization of our industry into something that works within existing societal paradigms rather than reimagining them. 

The hierarchies of glam work vs grunt work 

Let’s first think about the division of labor in a hierarchy. There are various ways of characterizing the divide between work that is more highly valued and work that is less valued. Some folks call the tasks that are energizing and intellectually interesting “work,” and the tasks that are boring, draining, but still necessary “labor.” To underline the divide even more, I tend to use the terms “glam work” and “grunt work.” Glam work is the type of soul-fulfilling work everyone dreams of doing, as well as the work that happens to be highly visible and highly compensated – such as closing big funding deals, designing programs, and setting organizational strategy. Grunt work is the work that you probably don’t get fired up doing, but that needs to get done anyway, such as manual data entry, printing and sending mailings, and office management. 

Every role usually has some of both types of work. Typically, however, the higher up you go on an organizational chain of command, you get to do more glam work and less grunt work. 

Despite the fact that we all come to this line of work with diverse and unique perspectives, qualities, and skills that the work could benefit from, we are told that we have to “put in the time” and “work our way up” in order to do the kinds of work that nurture our spirits. We also systematically devalue grunt work, which is still incredibly critical to organizational operations, as needing less expertise – and therefore we compensate it far less than glam work. 

The issue here is that we are just replicating the same inequitable power structures within the organization that we complain about external to the organization. Frontline and junior staff skew younger, BIPOC, and are often closer to or part of the communities being served. While they may not have years of professional experience under their belt, they have invaluable lived experience, fresh perspectives, and insight into our rapidly changing culture that can sometimes only be seen from their vantage point. Therefore, sidelining them from glam work just contributes to a poorer outcome for important projects like setting organizational direction and strategy. 

Hierarchies formalize ageism in the workplace

In a newly formed small organization, I once shared the idea of a flatter organizational structure and equal compensation for all staff, given that we were each bringing varied skills to the table, equally valuable lived experiences, and a history of youth advocacy. I mentioned that youth should be seen as a strength that has unique and inherent worth and not simply as a lack of experience. This approach was dismissed in favor of a more traditional one, factoring in years of experience as a proxy for value. 

It saddens me that the increased professionalization of nonprofits has resulted in ageism being formalized into nonprofit governance (even in youth-focused organizations). If our structures of authority, compensation, and division of labor are predominantly or even partially based on quantity of experience, in some cases, that comes down to simply rewarding whoever has spent the most time on this earth and has had the opportunity to advance up the career ladder. While I definitely respect the perspectives of people with many years of experience, I equally respect what I learn from people who are younger than I am, and I think the most fruitful work comes from a collaboration of the two groups as equals. 

I’m sure we can all think of examples of nonprofits that are run by people with many years on their resumes who lack other qualities such as innovative thinking, an equity mindset, or deep roots in the community, resulting in badly managed and less impactful social change work. This leads me to believe that age does not necessarily equal experience, and experience does not necessarily equal wisdom. 

Another consideration is that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, given the instability of our global climate, shifting political landscapes, and breakneck pace of technological development. Generation gaps are poised to widen more than ever before, given that young people grow up with rapidly evolving technology that fundamentally changes the way they engage with the world. There are important evolutions in cultural norms, ways of being, and social theory that older generations may not even be aware of. We cannot afford to sideline, disengage, and undervalue these critical perspectives just because hierarchy is the way things have always been done.

The immediate objection that typically arises in response to the idea of a flat organizational structure is usually that it seems unfair to the people who have already put in the time to work their way up. My response to that is that it’s only unfair under the norms of hierarchy culture. A new, more equitable system often feels unfair to the group that was already advantaged in some way. Breaking down white supremacy culture can often feel for white folks like they’re being disadvantaged. Working toward economic justice can often feel unfair for wealthy folks who feel entitled to that wealth. 

But we need to question the systems that disproportionately reward some types of skill and experience over others. Especially in nonprofits, we need to question the wholesale adoption of the quantity of professional experience as a proxy for value in the workplace when there’s a whole rainbow of other equally valuable types of experience people bring to the cause. 

Hierarchies ignore terraforming labor and lead to worker alienation

The message I receive from hierarchy culture, as a worker at the bottom of the ladder, is a reinforcement of the message I receive from the rest of society – that I am worth less than others.

There’s also a whole spectrum of invisible labor some folks have to do to even exist in certain spaces, colloquially known as terraforming. A person with a chronic illness may have to work twice as hard to focus. A parent may have unexpected childcare responsibilities for the day but also a grant deadline. An ESL speaker may have to work a bit harder to comprehend during a fast-paced meeting. 

If you want diverse perspectives on your team and for people to feel like their voice matters, you also need to honor what it takes for someone to even be there, let alone speak up in the space. It’s a lot of labor to make an existing workplace environment work for you when it wasn’t designed with your identity, culture, or community in mind. 

But people don’t get a choice in whether they do that labor or not. This is one more reason that seniority-based compensation hierarchies in a human-centered workplace are ill-advised. A hierarchy based on the number of senior positions a person has held over time too often just ends up rewarding those who don’t need to do as much terraforming labor. It also makes me feel that not only is all the extra labor I’m doing unseen, it is unimportant and unvalued. 

The message I receive from hierarchy culture, as a worker at the bottom of the ladder, is a reinforcement of the message I receive from the rest of society – that I am worth less than others. That is quite literally the message that hierarchies are designed to send, and they do it pretty effectively. 

This results in a sense of profound alienation and feeling disconnected from the work and the workplace community. Treating workers as a group of trusted peers with equal authority inspires a sense of ownership over the work that is much more generative in the long run than the infantilizing requirement that juniors report to seniors, who in turn report to even more senior employees. The latter is a fear-based system, specifically the fear that people won’t pull their weight and so need to be “managed.” The former is a trust-based system, which allows people to rise to the occasion and feel ownership, engagement, and a sense of responsibility toward the organization.

Alternatives to hierarchy culture

So what is a nonprofit to do? Does moving away from hierarchy culture mean you have to go entirely flat immediately? Does it mean you will never be able to attract the best talent because you pay everyone the same? Does it mean that there is only one right way to democratize an organization? 

Of course not. This is a complex, multi-faceted problem, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. There are, however, many resources and practices available to you to begin thinking about reducing hierarchy, promoting workplace democracy, and sharing power more equitably in your organization. 

One practice that I have seen progressive nonprofits adopt is posting job descriptions where only the skills and competencies needed for that position are listed – entirely omitting any quantitative language like “X number of years’ experience required.” Framing the job description by focusing on the actual qualities and skills that the position requires helps to avoid arbitrarily excluding potentially qualified candidates on the basis of years spent in professional positions. The fact is that there is such a vast variety of lived experiences that can often be more valuable in this work than any number of impressive-sounding titles on a resume. 

Another practice is flexible, need-based compensation. This paradigm of compensation philosophy takes into account not only each staff member’s labor value, but also their needs as a human. For example, your compensation structure could start off paying everyone the same salary but then take into account the number of dependents that a staff member supports, in a care-based model. It could factor in whether a person values their time more than money and could compensate folks with more time off or a shorter workweek instead of a raise. In a truly human-centered workplace, the value of a human’s labor should not just be determined by capitalist market forces. We, as workers, should have the power to influence and shape the compensation policy to which we are subject. 

Lastly, I think horizontal structures and participatory governance deserve much more attention in the nonprofit sector. Historically, these things have been the province of worker cooperatives. However, in recent years, these principles have begun to be applied to nonprofits, resulting in a model that the Sustainable Economies Law Center calls “worker self-directed nonprofits.” They have a program called the Nonprofit Democracy Network that shares learnings and resources on how to practice workplace democracy in the nonprofit context. 

I hope that, as a sector, we can be more open to rethinking traditional modes of workplace governance. I refuse to believe that hierarchy culture is the limit of organizational imagination in the nonprofit sector. We can and should dream bigger for many reasons, but the most compelling among them being that the social change work we are here to do will be better for it.

Nivetha Nagarajan

Nivetha Nagarajan

Nivetha Nagarajan (she/her/hers) is a nonprofit data wrangler and labor organizer trying to understand why things are the way they are and questioning the limits of the nonprofit industrial complex in making change. The views expressed in her writing are hers alone and not representative of her employer(s).