Design Notes

Redesigning a Justice-Committed Organization

What does it look like to design an organization to fulfill a just purpose? To pursue just strategies? To engage staff, board, and stakeholders in just structures thoughtfully designed for them to, as adrienne maree brown put it, “relax into collaborative innovation.”

5 Minutes

by Jeanne Bell and Dan Tucker, Co-Founders

Image: MARIANA JUAREZ, artist, San Miguel de Allende, MX [Instagram, Website]

Blog No. 6 - November 2023 (Part 1 of a 3-Part Blog Series)

Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.

-Charles Eames, designer, architect, filmmaker

What does it look like to design an organization to fulfill a just purpose? To pursue just strategies? To engage staff, board, and stakeholders in just structures thoughtfully designed for them to, as adrienne maree brown put it, “relax into collaborative innovation.”1

The co-authors’ experience as executives, decades of consulting experience, and passionate self-study about these questions lead us to this conclusion: it does not look like the traditional design the vast majority of justice-committed leaders keep trying to make work. By “traditional design,” we mean the design below. In organizational design terms, this is called a functional, bureaucratic2 design.

Traditional Functional Design

A central problem for justice-committed organizations with this vertical design is that justice strategies are inherently interdisciplinary and experimental, or what in organizational design is called, “horizontal.” Complex horizontal strategies we see progressive nonprofits and philanthropies committing to include:

  • Participatory grantmaking
  • Becoming a Pro-Black organization
  • Centering the voices and leadership of directly impacted people
  • Engaging young people as current and future movement leaders
  • Upending assumptions and experiences of art and exhibition

Such strategies do indeed require “collaborative innovation” across roles, program areas, power levels, lived experience, etc. In short, a design that consists only of functional hierarchies will not yield ongoing strategic innovation, alignment, and momentum in a justice-focused context.

If strictly functional, bureaucratic designs are not the path forward for justice-committed organizations, how shall we adapt our organizations to embrace horizontality? In this first of a three-part blog series exploring this question, we start with twelve principles of a Just Organizational Design. 

Why start with design principles?

Because redesign work is challenging. In redesigning our organizations we confront issues of power, attachment, appetite for collaboration (or lack thereof), and more. To do this work without an anchoring set of design principles will lead to undisciplined, one-off design choices: re-title this position, form this task force, etc. We offer these principles as a way to ground an organization in a holistic approach to organizational design and ongoing refinement.


Principles of a Just Organizational Design



The following principles–applied in concert–offer a path to intentional and highly strategic organizational design for justice-committed nonprofits and philanthropies.

  1. Organizational purpose must be clear and resounding before anything else. Only then can we design organizations that engage everyone in a shared purpose.
  2. Strategy is our shared means for pursuing organizational purpose. Strategy is alive; it belongs to everyone at every level; everyone is accountable to it.
  3.  Structure is the purposeful configuration of people to activate strategy.
  4. As justice-committed organizations, equity, inclusion, and leadership development are explicit intentions of our structural choices. 
  5. Rigorous conversation and conscious decision-making are how we activate strategy every day across all bodies of work.
  6. Avoidance of difficult conversations and deferred decision-making undermine strategy activation and deplete staff morale.
  7. Strategy activation is inherently cross-functional; it requires coordinated conversation and decision-making across teams and position levels.
  8. Effective leadership teams ensure highly relevant strategies and the organizational structure to fully activate them.
  9. Effective leaders create brave space for–and actively participate in–strategic conversation and debate; they model and coach others to build their strategic-thinking confidence.
  10. Meeting design and facilitation are core organizational competencies; without them, rigorous conversations and transparent decision-making elude us.
  11. Group decision-making becomes an organizational strength when we learn and employ consensus techniques that do not require unanimous agreement.
  12. Collaborative technology is essential for sharpening our strategic habits and reducing our cognitive load. We can no longer rely upon emails and slide decks alone to sustain strategic alignment.
   ©2023 JustOrg Design   


If you are considering or in the midst of organizational redesign, we invite you to discuss these twelve principles at an upcoming leadership team meeting or retreat. How do they resonate? What questions do they bring up? 

Next month, in the second blog in this three-part series, we’ll offer more specifics on the structural elements we think belong in a just organizational design.

Principles of a Just Organizational Design--download this pdf

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End Notes

  1. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, p. 70
  2. "A functional organizational structure is a common type of business structure that organizes a company into different departments based on areas of expertise, grouping employees by specialty, skill or related roles. It’s based on levels of hierarchy that include different departments, under the direction of designated leaders." Source

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