October 22, 2020

How One Organization Brought Discipline, Inclusivity, and Transparency to Its Decision-Making Process

Executive Director Merf Ehman shares how Columbia Legal Services adapted a time-tested decision-making tool to develop a more inclusive approach to its decision-making process.

Many organizations look for ways to improve their decision-making practices. Few, however, must put them to the test under conditions as challenging as those faced by nonprofit legal aid provider Columbia Legal Services (CLS) in the spring of 2020.

Fruit packers in Eastern Washington, faced with the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and seeking protections, went on strike and called on CLS to help. The situation for CLS was fraught: How could it fulfill its mission to serve groups like the farm workers while at the same time ensuring that its own employees weren’t unduly exposed to danger? There was no time for extended contemplation—good decisions needed to happen quickly.

Fortunately, CLS had a clear decision-making model in place thanks to a 2018 refresh of their core strategy. Working with Bridgespan’s Leading for Impact® program, the organization had narrowed down the populations for whom it would offer legal assistance, focusing their efforts on undocumented immigrants, incarcerated individuals, and policy advocacy for low-income people living in Washington state.

The strategy refresh also involved retooling their decision-making process, which had lacked discipline, transparency, and inclusivity, despite the latter two being strong organizational values. Their new decision-making tool, RAPID, delivered a time-tested starting point from which the CLS team could imagine its newly inclusive decision-making process.

Bridgespan spoke to Merf Ehman, CLS’s executive director, about the lessons the organization learned as it implemented the new decision-making process amidst protests and the pandemic.

What were CLS’s biggest problems with decision making?

Once we had our strategic focus in place, our next priority was to adopt a decision-making framework that upheld our values of equity, inclusion, and transparency, while allowing us to decide things without drawing the process out over weeks and months. After this, we needed to instill more discipline in our decision making. Prior to participating in LFI, we regularly changed our minds after making a decision. Sometimes, we forgot whether we were deciding something or simply seeking input. Even after we made a decision, it seemed as though it was open for renegotiation. There was also the sense that the more experienced senior staff could skirt the official decision-making process and get projects approved by going directly to management

It often wasn’t clear who had input into decisions and who made the final call, and our communication out on decisions was haphazard at best.

Merf Ehman
Merf Ehman, Executive Director, Columbia Legal Services

For us, the critical piece was ensuring that everyone had access to the same information, understood why they had input or didn’t have input into the decision, and who the decision maker was. At the very least, we wanted to eliminate all of the unofficial channels stuff.

Little did you know how soon your training would be tested...

That’s right. There were fruit packers in Eastern Washington organizing and taking to the streets to protest the working conditions and the safety issues during the pandemic. It was a huge risk for workers to walk off the job. They might be fired or retaliated against in other ways, and they needed legal support. Our attorneys and advocates wanted to be out there doing what they do, but the leadership team was ultimately responsible both for keeping our staff safe during a pandemic and for being there for the people we serve, who were being asked to risk their lives to pack fruit. That's where the RAPID decision-making process really became essential.

How did your decision-making practices manifest at this critical moment?

The framework we had installed enabled us to balance transparency and inclusion with speed. We needed to make a decision and we needed to do it quickly because some of our lawyers and community workers had already gone out to the strike while there was a stay-at-home order in place.

Basically, we tailored the RAPID process to our organization and our needs. For example, in the RAPID method, “A” stands for “Agree.” But that framing didn’t resonate with us so we changed the “A” to “Allow.” If doing something was unethical or unlawful or not in the budget — not allowed — we nixed it. Ultimately, our decision boiled down to whether our staff were essential workers and thus able to join the strikers rather than follow the stay-at-home rule.

Our human resources director got the necessary input – the “I” in RAPID – from our attorneys and advocacy director, and then we – the executive team, as the “deciders,” made the decision to allow our staff to work with the strikers. At first, I got too far out in front in leading the process and had to step back to have our operations director take the lead as she was the “R” recommender. Finally, and importantly, we then shared the decision with the rest of staff via email. The whole process took five days and not only helped us do the right thing but also offered guidance for other nonprofits who are working with folks striking across the country.

Have you adopted the framework for other decisions at CLS?

We’re trying to integrate it into our thinking across the board as a means of strengthening our commitment to equity. For example, we’ve recently had two members of our staff leave their positions. In our Yakima and Seattle offices, two of the legal assistants were promoted to new positions. In the past, HR would have met with the hiring manager and decided. End of story. Now, for that type of decision, we’ve gotten clear and consistent about seeking input from those impacted by that role. So using our new framework, we went back to the attorney and the other legal assistants and asked whether we should fill it. In Yakima, the answer was “yes,” and in Seattle, the answer was to wait six months and reassess.

We’re also encouraging the use of multiple deciders who are chosen depending on their expertise and what type of decision we're making. For example, as we roll out our community engagement plan, the community engagement director will write the plan, and both he and his team will be the final deciders. It’s more inclusive that way.

Have you received pushback from some of your team?

Yeah, we called it the “RAPID Rebellion!” Early on in the process, when we were mapping all of our decisions in long spreadsheets, some of our staff thought that it was all too much. We simplified our process and tested it with the folks in our organization to keep them engaged. Bridgespan helped by connecting us to another legal aid firm with similar challenges to ours and having us go through our trainings together.

Our staff are going to get a good look at how the RAPID process works as we do inclusive budgeting in the coming weeks.  In the past, budgeting was done by the controller who decided everything based on the previous year’s numbers. Now, all staff have will have input (I) into the budget on their needs for the next year. Then management considers these requests, with an Allow from our controller, and makes a recommendation (R) to me. I then decide (D) whether to make changes or pass that recommendation to our board of directors who ultimately decide. Then we communicate to everybody why we made the budget decisions we did. I’m hopeful the end result will not only be a good budget but a new mindset where everybody stops seeing the budget as a bunch of figures but rather as an expression of our mission and purpose.

What are your concluding thoughts?

When I came to CLS a few years ago, I was impatient and wanted to change everything at all at once. Now I keep reminding myself that people aren't endless pits of capacity — for work, for change, for anything. This framework has helped me with being patient with the implementation, being willing to take a few risks and being okay with making some mistakes, such as over stepping every now and then. As long as we always circle back to our principles and values and stick to the process we've agreed on, I feel confident that CLS will continue to move in a positive direction.

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