Building an Integrity-Focused Board (Part 1)

On Monday, November 11, Creating the Future’s board and community members began the actual building of what’s next for our own board. The following is a summary of that brain-bending discussion. (To watch or listen to the actual discussion, click here.)

If there were no such thing as organizations as we currently know them, what would we build to accomplish social missions and propel social change forward?

For the past four years, this question has been at the heart of our board’s discussions. Because Creating the Future is a grounds for re-imagining the systems we all encounter every day, that question has led to a complete redesign of our organization’s structure, and within that structure, a redesign of the role of Creating the Future’s board.

As a corporation, Creating the Future is legally required to have a board of directors. As for what that board is legally obligated to do, the answer is, “Not much.” There are many lists of what board members are prohibited from doing. However, short of “Do what is in the best interests of the organization” – the ever-quoted duties of care, loyalty, and obedience – there is virtually no affirmative mandate that tells boards what they MUST do.

Given that reality, what could the board of this organization make possible towards accomplishing Creating the Future’s mission? What support could the board provide that
a) could be done by a group of volunteers who are removed from the day-to-day operations of the organization (i.e. most boards), and
b) that is not already being done by others?

At our May 2019 meeting, we determined that the role of our board will be to safeguard the organization’s integrity, to ensure we are meeting the expectations of all our stakeholders. To meet those expectations, we will need to design systems to…

  • discover what questions our stakeholders want answered,
  • answer those questions,
  • ask what ways people want those answers shared,
  • share in those ways,
  • ask, “Is this what you wanted to know? Does this information answer your questions?”
  • then ask and answer THOSE questions. And share the answers, and ask again…

All the board’s discussions thus far have been guided by the Catalytic Thinking framework, a set of practices aimed at bringing out the best in each other via the questions that we ask. During our March meeting this year, we considered who will be affected by our decision. During our April discussion, we asked what meeting the expectations of those stakeholders could make possible, for those individuals and for our mission. And during our May meeting, we considered what people would need to know for that high potential outcome to become reality.

Designing the Logistics: What Will it Take?
At our November meeting, we began asking the questions circled in red in this graphic of the Catalytic Thinking framework. If we are to take action to build this board, what would the board need to have? What would board members need to know / understand? What would they need to be assured of?

If you watch or listen to the recording of that discussion, you will notice the number of times each participant spoke of their brain being bent and twisted around. The reason for the mind-bending nature of the discussion is simple: we are building something that doesn’t currently exist, with no simple go-to thought habits nor language to reflexively describe what we are intending to build.

As you watch, you will see our board and community members wrangle with thoughts for which they have no easily accessible touchstones. You will see us walk the razor’s edge between the known and the unknown, exploring, testing ideas and assumptions, walking some of them back and bringing others into the light.

The following is a summary of the highlights of that discussion. We have only just begun this work, and so we are inviting YOU to join us for our December meeting, as we continue the brain-bending work of building this new entity – Creating the Future’s board!

To accomplish the role of “Integrity Board,” what will board members need to KNOW?

  • Board members need to know how we are defining “best interests,” when we talk about “working as a fiduciary, in the best interests of the organization.”
  • Board members need to know that we define that as best interests of the community, and what that means…
  • Board members need to know who has the information and the competency to make decisions?
  • Board members need to know the difference between ensuring that expectations are met vs. making decisions.
  • Board members need to know that their job is to ensure vs. do.
  • Board members need to know who makes which decisions (i.e. not the board!)
  • Board members need to know Catalytic Thinking, to be comfortable with the questions they will ask and the order in which they will ask them
  • Board members need to know whether Catalytic Thinking was used to come to a decision, and to what extent that process was effective
  • Board members need to know that the board is not operational – that the whole job is integrity oversight
  • Board members need to know what assets the organization has, and to what extent those assets are being applied effectively towards accomplishing the mission.

To accomplish the role of “Integrity Board,” what will board members need to HAVE?

  • Board members need to have conduits / connections to the stakeholders they will be asking questions about their expectations
  • Board members need to have experience working well in a group
  • Board members need to have the ability to question their own assumptions
  • Board members need to have comfort with sharing power
  • Board members need to have shared values with the organization
  • Board members need to have beginner’s mind
  • Board members need to have mechanisms and protocols for how they will invite inquiry, find answers, refine responses, deliver responses.

At the end of every meeting, we take time to reflect – to ask, “What stood out for you today? What are you going to continue thinking about after the meeting?”

The following is a summary of the responses attendees shared today. We strongly urge you to listen to the recording of the meeting, between 1:53:14 and the end of the meeting at 2:05:17, to hear people’s actual words.

What do board members need to know, to know that integrity is being upheld?

The value and importance of diversity. When we talk about power and privilege, what will it take for this board’s work to be applicable to people who have been marginalized? Where do they fit in this conversation?

Also, Jane’s reflection brings up the questions asked by Tony Benn, a politician and former MP in the UK. Those questions are…

1. What power have you got?
2. Who gave it to you?
3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
4. To whom are you accountable?
5. And how can we get rid of you?

We will need people with the ability to challenge their own assumptions, and to encourage others to challenge their own assumptions.

This is a fundamental shift in the power structures of organizations, re-envisioning what an organization can look like. We have to redefine power to have community voices shape our work.

My job as a board member should be get more people involved, especially people we don’t normally hear from because of structural issues and privilege that is at play.

The important interface between privilege, power, difference and diversity. These usually interface when there is conflict, and we are seeking to blend them, to have them intentionally interface.

The need for blowing things up and starting over, because Justin’s observation is spot on – structurally, organizations are not designed to achieve the community’s potential. It becomes more obvious with every one of our discussions that there is absolutely a need for a fundamental shift.

In addition, this mind-bending work is about the mechanics of the rubber hitting the road – the doing. And we’re not walking this path alone. Others are asking these questions, in particular, the Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Re-imagining Governance initiative.  And years ago, a group from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management developed Community Engagement Governance, which Judy Freiwirth has written much about. We have many people with whom we can link arms as we walk this path. 

We hope this summary inspires you to join us for any of our upcoming meetings, as we are co-designing all of this side-by-side with members of our community. As a reminder, all Creating the Future’s strategy meetings and board meetings are open for anyone to participate, or to watch afterwards. To learn more about the thinking behind this openness – and our experiences with being open – click here. 

And to be part of the December meeting, click here. We hope to see you there!

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