Our Transition to a Co-Director Model

By Mary Martinez and Jill Zawisza, Co-Directors, WOMAN Inc.

The following are notes from our recent presentation for the CPEDV statewide conference. The following is our story and is no way meant to be seen as a manual. Rather, we offer a bit about where we’ve landed since a fiscal crisis in 2012, the values that moved us to this recent shift in leadership model and key documents that helped us along our journey.

On July 1, 2021, we transitioned from a traditional, Executive Director Model to a Co-Director model. The following is a summary of our reasoning behind this shift, our journey and what we hope the future will look like.

Grounding question:

Perhaps a good place to start if you work with a nonprofit is to consider how your organization shares power and nourish emerging leaders? There may be ways you are already invested in this work, perhaps without even knowing you are doing it. Or, maybe you are mindful of how you share power. Making a practice of questioning and considering this was and is an important part of leadership and organizational development for us at WOMAN Inc.

Our journey:

All-in-all, this transition is the result of a nine year journey, a salient starting point was a fiscal crisis back in 2012. This crisis required us to develop a hyper-internal focus as this crisis created a vacuum in leadership.

At this time, Jill Zawisza was asked by the board and the staff team to act as the Interim Executive Director. The role was accepted, with the understanding that Jill and the staff team at the time could adapt our procedures and leadership model to meet the crisis and ongoing organizational needs. 

As a result, together, the staff assembled a leadership team. The team co-created a strategy to stabilize WOMAN Inc’s finances, identifying key values such as transparency & consensus along the way. All of us came together to manage the transition,  realizing we were reimagining the organization along the way. 

Realizing that the hierarchical structure (without shared leadership)  hadn’t served our organization or previous directors, we solidified our consensus model and shared leadership approach. After some time and movement away from scarcity mode, it became clear that some past directors were scapegoated for failings of capitalism and unrealistic expectations put at one ‘heroic leader’s’ feet. So we delved deeper into examining who had what power (which I’ll touch on a bit later) and how each of us had untapped leadership potential.

At the same time, organizational stabilization meant we could widen our focus, connecting with our community for inspiration and thought partnership, researched different leadership models and centered self-care and (unbeknownst to us at the time) collective liberation.

These years (2012-2020) informed the decision to move to a Co-Director model, which helps us live our values and disinvest in white supremacy culture & capitalism.

Sometimes it works, sometimes we learn from what doesn’t work…

The Co-Director idea presented to the board in 2016 and after much consideration, it was denied. There was concern that there weren’t enough core operating funds (essentially a nonprofit savings) to quell the uncertainty of this transition. Instead, we created an Associate Director position and baby-stepped it to a fully realized Co-Director model. 

Along the way, we built core operating of almost a year with campaigns, core operating support, which helped alleviate these financial concerns. Finally, the model was approved in 2021, transition happened on July 1.

The details:

The first year is an official planning and implementing period; we will report back to our board on progress and task distribution at the end of this period. More efforts will be put into building and sustaining our core operating funds so this model doesn’t pull funds away from our programming budget. 

Key tools and grounding values, documents and processes:

Documenting our developing values and goals was (and is) pivotal in our organizational development. We acknowledge that this might look like worship of the written word, and it plays out as something entirely different. Having these agreed upon processes and documents helps us name, appreciate and work through nuance. They act as guidelines instead of rules. 

These key processes and documents:

R(I)APID decision making*: Consensus process

  • centers those who decision will impact most
  • everyone weighs in//not everyone gets ‘their way’
  • transparency//when can’t we enact consensus?

Cultural Praxis: Spells out how we live our values at WOMAN Inc. 

  • institutionalized the way we do our work
  • not meant to be the end all manual, but to inform & solidify our foundation
  • outlines how we enter into community together

Theory of Change: goals, inferences and what we want to see in the future

  • sharing out on a large scale who we are, where we are going, and values will inform our journey 
  • surfaces inferences 
  • shares our north star of collective liberation

Navigating With Integrity: our guide on how to weather crisis, 

  • taking all the important elements of anti-racism, sharing power & consensus into consideration before we react 
  • how we can adhere to our shared values

All documents were collaboratively shaped, planned and drafted; they all speak to the need for shared power and steer us away from an Executive Director model (& beyond). Creating these documents and processes required time with (and away from) the group to build the level of trust required to move through discomfort


Working in a field that is full of crisis, it can feel difficult to find the spaciousness to think about this. We often hear “we’re so busy doing the work that there isn’t time to think about how white supremacy culture or the hierarchy is impacting the organization, the survivors, or the people that work here.” 

So, we encourage you to take a moment and think about this. Do you have a trusted peer you can talk to about this? Consider how you will honor and manage your thoughts and reflections. Pay them the attention and give them the honor they deserve.

Key values that move us along on our journey:

Fleshing out these values continues to inspire and center us as we consider what’s to come. They help us lessen harm to our coworkers, volunteers and participants and our partners and the field.

Keep in mind, values without dialogue can be largely conceptual. It is and was pivotal for us to surface these values, speak to how they show play out at WOMAN Inc. While nothing is perfect, including WOMAN Inc or the folks on the leadership team, these values help move us away from harm doing and toward healing as an organization and field. Pivotal to this, is embracing an ongoing process of unlearning as a staff and as an organization. 

You can learn more about how we live these values by reviewing our Cultural Praxis and Theory of Change.

Our organizations and movement need to heal:

Mirroring a survivor’s healing journey, we seek to heal our organization from the violence of capitalism and white supremacy culture (and racism). There is no one way to heal from the harm from the impact of the professionalism of the field, but the field can delve deeper into healing practices as it divests from WSC.

  • this means taking accountability for the harm we’ve done to survivors and DV advocates
  • for us, this also means shifting our structures (intentionally, over time) to not just be inclusive or diverse, but to share power with folks who bring diversity and inclusion
  • this is one way we seek to heal our organization from the harm and violence perpetrated by capitalism which introduces false scarcity, competition and the misuse of power to hold onto it

Healing can come through making visible what has systemically been made invisible. There are many ways power and influence show up outside of traditional director and management roles. People with high levels of positional authority aren’t necessarily  influential outside of the decision making power their role holds. Note your power, how it shifts depending on groups you are in, organizations you work with, etc. See everyone’s power as always shifting & consider how you can make it grow.

Examples of different types of power:

Consider the following…

What culture are you trying to create?

  • Who is informing this vision? Is it shared?
  • What do you need to move it forward?

What structure might reflect that vision and culture?

  • How do you move to collective power
  • How can you share power along the way?

You need the right people at the helm to move toward breaking down hierarchy

  • This will result in a loss of positional power for an Executive Director, for other directors, managers (anyone in traditional leadership)
  • Constant process of unlearning and educating outside folks with requests, etc., on how our process is different
    • This can take time, and ongoing effort
    • An opportunity to talk about the change you are moving toward

In conclusion:

The Co-Director model is an experiment & it’s just the beginning. Over time, we are interested in figuring out how we can share power and positional authority at WOMAN Inc. Breaking down the position with the most positional authority, the Executive Director, seemed to be the most bold and also, the strategy that made the most sense. 

Some considerations include team member roles, how long they’ve been employed at WOMAN Inc, their role and interest in engagement. Having an overarching rule as to  who joins and who doesn’t join the leadership team isn’t the goal. We hope to create a series of considerations as to when that transition happens, how folks are onboarded, and how we engage new ideas and perspectives.

While the future is unwritten, we know that staying dedicated to our values, centering survivors of color, especially Black women and transgender women, we know we will make decisions that will empower the survivor community and divest from power-over dynamics that create the circumstances of oppression and violence. We will move closer toward collective liberation. 

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