Nonprofit Marketing Essentials – The Power of Leaderless Organizations

I have been experimenting with marketing some of the services my organization provides. This experience has taught me a few essential lessons. Nonprofit Marketing Essentials is a series of posts intended to share some of those lessons so that we can learn together.

The Power of Leaderless Organizations
In their book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom explain the potential of decentralized organizations with an analogy. A spider is an organism with eight legs coming out of a central body. If the spider were to lose a leg, the creature would die. Starfish on the other hand have a unique trait that makes them much more resilient. While a starfish has a central body and five appendages, it is comprised of a neural network. If an arm were to be cut off, not only would the creature continue to live, but the arm would become a new starfish. The neural network of the starfish operates without a brain. While the spider tells its legs to move, the starfish moves by having one part of the neural network convince the rest to move. No single organ is in charge.

Leaderless Organizations Are Resilient
The authors liken many organizations to a starfish or a spider throughout their book, but one example illustrates the point well, record labels and the rise of peer to peer sharing. In 2000, Napster was sued by record labels and shut down because the platform enabled users to download music that the record labels owned. The case was relatively simple, but despite this victory, and smaller ones against individual users, peer to peer downloading of intellectual property continued and even grew, while record label revenue continued to fall. While Napster could be defeated because it had a centralized server and a CEO to sue, dozens of other organizations popped up without these weaknesses. Eventually the ones that made money on peer to peer sharing were defeated in court, but some platforms were created with no revenue model just for the sake of sharing. Versions of these platforms still exist today. Record labels are like spiders in that they have centralized leadership and while they can be powerful, they can struggle to adapt to a changing world. Peer to peer sharing networks on the other hand are like starfish; cut off one arm and another starfish is born. Without a central leader, there was no way to completely defeat them.

Leaderless Organizations Are Empowering
In business, the goal might be to bring in revenue like a centralized organization, but learn to adapt and be resilient like a decentralized organization. This is called a hybrid organization. Nonprofits have an opportunity to be more decentralized. A cause can catch on in a large network without a single organization guiding the work. Alcoholics Anonymous is an example of such an organization. A central organization does exist, but chapters pop up independently all over the world on their own. The key to leveraging a decentralized organization is in finding a catalyst. For example, Jimmy Wales was the catalyst behind Wikipedia. Wales empowers Wikipedia users to become contributors and editors on a completely volunteer basis. By trusting the community, Wales has achieved more than he ever could have on his own.

Would you ever decentralize your nonprofit organization? Could a hybrid approach get you closer to achieving your cause? Am I crazy? Tell me in the comments below.

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