DIY Liberation: How we wrote the OF/BY/FOR ALL employee handbook

When you’re starting a new nonprofit organization, you tend to focus on the mission. The programs. How you’ll do good in the world. But there’s another thing that matters to your success: how you work as a team.

We never planned to post the OF/BY/FOR ALL employee handbook publicly, but we included it with a recent job posting, and lots of people remarked on it. So we’ve decided to share it — with acknowledgement that this is very much a work in progress.

You can read the OF/BY/FOR ALL staff handbook right now, here.

Where did this come from? It came from our desire to find a new way of working in a small nonprofit committed to inclusive change.

Before starting OF/BY/FOR ALL, I spent eight years leading another nonprofit through a period of transformational growth. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you I had total freedom to change the culture and the rules for how that organization worked. But that wasn’t quite true. I drove a lot of change, but I drove it within a container of acceptability for a small-to-midsized cultural organization. We changed the rules. Tweaked them. Rewrote them. But we never tore them all down and started anew.

When I started this new organization, we started fresh. The possibilities were much larger and wilder than I’d previously imagined. There were big abstract questions about values, but also practical questions. When and where should we work? What should we pay people? What benefits should we offer? While part of me longed for a template to riff off, we resisted that desire. I didn’t want to opt into “default” nonprofit ways of working, which so often mirror and amplify inequitable power structures. Our team is focused on accelerating inclusive practice and institutional change. When it came to our own organization, we didn’t want the master’s tools. We wanted to forge our own.

And so we decided to write an employee handbook. We did it before we were big enough to need one. We did it before we were even our own legal entity. We did it when we had a million other projects on our plate. We did it because it was important. It helped us imagine the world we want to create. It helped us make our own template to guide our way. It was a liberatory exercise that empowered us to dream up new ways of working.

As a nonprofit devoted to inclusive practice, it was critical for us to live our mission as fully as possible. So I went out looking for examples of how other organizations were baking their purpose into employee handbooks.

I didn’t find many in nonprofits. But fortunately, ever since the Netflix culture deck was posted in 2009, many tech startups have used internal oversharing as a marketing and recruitment tool. Tech companies are rarely paragons of diversity and inclusion, but they are often transparent, creative, and confident enough to chart their own idiosyncratic ways of working.

I reviewed countless culture decks and staff handbooks. Then, I drafted an initial handbook, peppered with question marks where I was unsure of how to proceed. Our whole team reviewed the draft, adding comments, suggestions, and more questions. We met in person and reviewed all the comments line by line. And then, we committed to the handbook — not as rules written in stone, but as an evolving set of guidelines for our work.

When you read our handbook, you’ll see six key concepts we integrated:

We paired core values with core behaviors. We learned about core behaviors from Patreon. This model is a great fit for our action-oriented approach. OF/BY/FOR ALL is dedicated to helping organizations shift from inclusive intention to action. We care more about what you do than what you say. We wanted to do the same when it came to our values, focusing on how we enact them through our behaviors. In our handbook, you’ll see five core values paired with concrete examples of how we live those values in our work.

We’re practicing pay transparency with an equity lens. I’d always been interested in pay transparency, and I knew it would be much easier if we did it right from the start. I think it’s one of the most powerful ways an organization can keep itself honest about values and staff wellbeing. So I read a ton about how pay transparency works, with specific focus on centering equity in a diverse, all-remote team. I especially appreciated Buffer’s many posts about how their approach evolved over time. We developed our cost of living policy based on theirs, and we’re experimenting with a “no negotiation” policy that has been shown to reduce gender and racial pay gaps. We also made a commitment to a maximum 3:1 ratio from the highest to lowest salary in the organization.

We spell out benefits, while being open to new opportunities. While we took some inspiration from tech handbooks, there are some freewheeling startup practices we avoided. We decided not to pursue open-ended policies like unlimited time off or “use your judgment” expense accounts. There’s some evidence that these can cause stress and confusion for employees in lower power roles and/or from less privileged backgrounds. So we decided to make our benefits clear and specific, while still being open to change. We keep adding and modifying as we understand the needs of our team. For example, our newest colleague asked about whether the organization would expect all staff to have their own passports. We realized this was an equity issue and an opportunity to do better. So we added that benefit — and paid for them to get a passport.

We put the diverse needs of a diverse staff first. We’re super-flexible about where and when you work. But it goes beyond that. We trust each other to make choices that work for us individually and collectively. For example: holidays. One thing that has always driven me bananas is the standard practice of giving everyone the same holidays off despite our differences. It’s always felt to me like Christianity and the government conspiring to dictate when to take a break. We decided to just have one big bucket of paid time off (30 days per year per person). Staff can use it whenever we want.

We tried to write a human handbook. In most workplaces, the employee handbook is an afterthought. It‘s often written in legalese or punitive language. This isn’t just a problem for employees who never consult the handbook. It’s a problem for new employee onboarding as well. Think about the last time you got a new job. The employee handbook was probably one of the first things you read — maybe even before your first day. At the moment when you were most excited, most engaged, you read a document that told you how you’d be disciplined if you showed up to work late. I think we can do better.

We created a living document for a living organization, subject to change. Early in the process, we came up with some ideas we weren’t ready to implement yet. Sabbaticals. Retirement funds. We’ve also had some debate about whether some of our current practices — like working a lot — are inequitable and should be changed. So the conversation stays open. We don’t see this as a document to stick on a shelf. We see it as part of our ever-evolving commitment to putting inclusion into action.

Going through all this reminds me of when my kid was born. I remember being in the hospital, signing the birth certificate R-O-C-K-E-T, looking at my husband in wonder and sleep deprivation and saying, “I can’t believe they’re letting us do this!” They let us do that. Rocket is now 6 and a big fan of her name (though she also answers to Sparkles). We bucked convention, made our own choice, and built the family we wanted to build.

Founding a new organization is like starting a family. You have the glorious and daunting opportunity to invent the way you want it to work. Sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes I’m afraid we’re going to screw something up. And sometimes we do choose to go with convention. But it’s always a choice. Not an expectation.

This is the challenge: to make a choice. To choose liberation. To reject oppression cloaked as industry standards. To do the research, have the conversation, and trust your imagination. It takes work to chart your own path. But it’s worth it.