Part-time Power

Background: Y Combinator (YC) is an influential seed accelerator and VC firm founded by Paul Graham and run by Sam Altman. Sam may remember me from the time I counted how many women he follows on Twitter. One of YC’s part-time partners is Peter Thiel, who spoke at the Republican National Convention. He also donated $1.25 million to Trump’s presidential campaign in mid-October after more than a dozen women accused the candidate of sexual assault and Trump once again repeated his calls for imprisonment of five innocent black men. For more details, see Project Include’s post on the topic, or Erica Baker, Nicole Sanchez, and Maciej Cegłowski’s numerous and wise tweets around it.

One of the things I teach in the Ally Skills workshop is a concept in moral philosophy called the Paradox of Tolerance – in short, the one thing a tolerant society must be intolerant of is intolerance. It’s really helped me frame how I’ve been thinking about this situation – to consider whether or not Thiel’s support of Trump puts him into the “intolerable intolerance” camp or not. It wasn’t a particularly tough call for me – were I in Altman’s shoes, I’d ask for Thiel’s resignation. But there’s part of the situation that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere.

When you bring someone into your organization as an advisor/mentor/office-hour-holder (which is what Thiel’s role at YC seems to consist of), you are doing three things:

  • Giving them power over the people in your organization that they are tasked with advising
  • Endorsing their advice as being something that people in your organization should follow
  • Sharing your social capital with them

Now, obviously, Thiel has those first two powers in droves in his various other capacities, but in keeping him on as a “part-time partner”, YC is both saying that they value the advice he can give their founders as well as implicitly giving him a position of power over them – the power of making introductions or not, writing letters of recommendation or not, and so on – the power of a sanctioned mentoring role.

They are also saying that they trust him to not discriminate against the people they are giving him power over – the founders in their program – in ways that are not aligned with YC’s values. Thiel has made it clear through decades of public writing and actions what his values are. He wrote a book called “The Diversity Myth”, for starters. Thiel also considers women having the vote to have “rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ an oxymoron“. This hits me particularly hard as I can’t vote right now – I am in the US on a visa, not yet a citizen, and as a non-resident can no longer vote in Canada.

One last thing: I stressed for two days about writing this post, knowing that Thiel is willing to fund multi-million dollar lawsuits against his critics. I have no connection to him and he has no other power over me. Imagine how it would feel should any of his mentees need to criticize him.

We all get to make a choice as to what constitutes “intolerable intolerance”. YC has made it clear that Thiel’s actions and words are tolerable enough to them to continue to give him power over people in their organization, and I find this unconscionable.

Organizational Anti-Patterns

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about organizational behavior, partly as a result of taking this cool Coursera class last year. (I wrote papers! Voluntarily!)  A couple of things keep coming up that I haven’t seen articulated elsewhere very much. So I wrote them down.

“Consensus-based” for-profits


Combine all the Tyranny of Structurelessness failure modes of consensus-based decisionmaking with the veto power of those who actually own the entity involved, and you have a recipe for disaster. I’ve seen it happen over and over again where something contentious comes up which pits the owner(s) of the entity against the participants / stakeholders whose consensus has been sought in the past. I’ve never seen a result other than the owner(s) exercising their veto.


Make it clear to stakeholders that you value their input, but that as a for-profit, the Board and/or owner(s) have the final say. To say otherwise is misleading. Consider consultative business models such as B Corporations.

Alternately, consider co-op or partnership business models, but think very carefully through their management implication. Both involve substantial overhead in terms of logistical and emotional labour.

For-profits which rely heavily on volunteer labour


So-and-so works 20+ hours per week for your for-profit entity, or does hero shifts all weekend at your conference. How cool is it that they believe in your cause so strongly or love your event so much that they are willing to help you out for free?!

Except… turns out they are actually incompetent / abusive towards clients (especially vulnerable ones) / toxic towards other staff or customers / did I mention incompetent? / a number of other failure modes.


Be wary of heroes. Hold any such “volunteers” to the same standards as you’d hold employees, including rigorous interview processes and background checks. This kind of screening is especially critical if they have any access to vulnerable or marginalized people such as children, people making career changes, people who are minorities in their field, etc. – people they would have power over in their “volunteer” work. Remember always that abusive people are attracted to positions of power and trust.

“All-volunteer” non-profits


Organizations which proudly proclaim their “all-volunteer” status have enough of a pattern of dysfunction that this has become a major red flag for me. Burnout is the biggest outcome I’ve seen with this one, but some of the same patterns as the volunteering-for-for-profits problem apply as well. When organizations run critical functions on donated time rather than being willing to compensate people for their time, they have a paradoxical tendency to both undervalue that labour (particularly, but not exclusively, if it is “pink-collar” labour that is traditionally marked as women’s work) while also being reluctant to ever “fire” volunteers who may be, as above, incompetent, abusive, or toxic.


Non-profit management is a specialized professional occupation. Pay someone who knows how to do it, even if only part time. Outsource (or insource, if you’re big enough) other specialized tasks such as accounting. Especially, as I learned from my friend Val, tasks you dread – those are the most likely to burn you out.

Boards as managers vs. boards as strategists


A friend pointed out another issue which is related to, but distinct from, the “all-volunteer” thing. Combine a lack of specific management staff with a board who are professionals or experts in the field the organization deals with, and you may end up with a board which manages rather than providing strategic guidance. In larger organizations, a part-time, volunteer board won’t be able to adequately manage staff (volunteer or otherwise). Another friend, Mike, pointed out to me that this is a version of Gerber’s “E-Myth” – the TL;DR of which is that businesses fail because people work “for” their businesses rather than “on” their businesses. When combined with the devaluation of labour through the “all-volunteer” anti-pattern, this has a particularly strong effect on non-profits.


Have separate board members and managers. Some overlap can work, but be thoughtful and most importantly explicit about roles and duties. Write these things down. Read up on non-profit board and management best practices from groups like BoardSource, because this is apparently a super common failure mode. For for-profits, check out the book “Startup Boards” by Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani.


There are two common threads between these four anti-patterns: power, and labour. Whose work and what kind of work is being valued? What is motivating the people who are working for free – what is their payoff? Whose voice is being listened to, and under what circumstances? What patterns of power and powerlessness from the wider culture in which these organizations exist are being reproduced within them?


Some readers will be able to guess which patterns I think apply to which organizations – none of these are points I’m making for the first time, and I’ve discussed them in the context of particular organizations at various times in the past. You’re welcome to discuss the applicability of these patterns to organizations you have experience with, but please don’t speculate as to which ones I’m referring to here.