Does Structure Equal Hierarchy?

by Lori Heninger
Shrewsbury Meeting


As a Quaker with 25+ years’ experience in non-profit management, leadership, and consulting, I can say that the way Quakers are organized and how we link worship and structure has been a beacon to me in my thinking about how to help organizations function more successfully. That said, revisiting and rethinking the systems and structures of New York Yearly Meeting can lead to new ideas, new relationships, and greater clarity of purpose within the group. 


For many groups, one of the most difficult concepts to tease out and, hopefully, leave behind, is that of conflating structure with hierarchy. Quakers have done a great deal to uncouple these two, and have shown that effective decision-making can be accomplished and action taken without power being invested in an individual “leader”. A step beyond this is an organization committing to the idea that organizational structures and practices must reflect the mission or purpose of the organization—because if we want sustainable change, the systems and structures we develop and use to create that change must reflect the world we want to see. 


Nonprofits don’t often operate internally in ways that reflect their mission. A group working on women’s rights may have a meager maternity leave policy. One focusing on children may not allow flex time for staff with children. International development groups have been structured so that headquarters were in developed countries, field staff were from the same developed countries, and programs developed without input from those being served were applied to the area and people served. Today, many international development organizations are decentralizing, establishing country-led bases that are staffed by local people who know the culture. This is at least part of an uncoupling of structure and hierarchy, and is more reflective of the change development organizations were created to achieve. 


My experience has shown me that it is in the best interest of the mission to allow those within an organization and those served by that mission to create and/or contribute to the creation of organizational systems and structures. I know that’s not everyone’s favorite answer to the question “What does an ideal version of NYYM look like?” but the collective creation of systems and structures, grounded in the values that underpin the mission/purpose, creates a mutual understanding that can result in a deep trust and better, more effective and impactful working/worshiping relationships. 


Defining the specific components of the mission or purpose of NYYM is a first step. Considering and lifting up the shared values that underpin these components, and thinking through how each of us defines and relates to those values, is a second step. Looking at the ways in which our beliefs and values impact our views of the best way to get to the mission/purpose leads to an agreed-upon understanding of what we are, together, working to achieve. That understanding allows the group to determine systems and structures so the ends (the mission/purpose) and the means (systems and structures) become one and the same.