Compliance, Expectations and Commitments: To Whom? For What?

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

At our March 2019 meeting (watch or listen here), Creating the Futrue’s board began tackling the nuts-and-bolts of starting anew – designing a brand new structure rooted in the question above. 

To understand our board’s discussion this month, it will be helpful to have some background. (If you are already steeped in the work we have been doing, feel free to skip this review.)

Since mid-2015, the question of organization has been the primary focus of Creating the Future’s board. What began at that time as a conversation about recruiting new board members has evolved into a conversation about organizational design overall. If Creating the Future is to accomplish its mission, what structure will best accomplish that?

In past discussions, we have defined that structure as a networked platform rooted in Collective Enoughness, the economic principle that together we have everything we need. What would it look like if an organization’s purpose was to be sure the people doing the work to accomplish our mission had what they need to accomplish that work?

Within that structure, a key question is the role of a board. If we were truly starting from scratch, this would not be an issue. We would just design what we need, with no worry about the role of anything that is currently part of the typical nonprofit structure.

But we are a tax exempt organization, incorporated by the State of Arizona as a nonprofit corporation. And as such, there are external powers-that-be (including the IRS, foundations, and many others) that expect us to have a board of directors.

The board has therefore chosen to narrow their focus on what is necessary vs. what has been added on by governance experts as the “role of the board.” Following the lead of organizations like New Zealand’s Enspiral, our board will be focusing solely on compliance – making sure we are complying with both legal and non-legal expectations and commitments.

The conversation at our meeting was guided by Catalytic Thinking. If you are not familiar with Catalytic Thinking, you can learn more here. You will also hear a brief explanation of the framework, and specifically how it guided our board’s discussion, at the 9:10 mark in the meeting video here.     

Compliance with What? For whom? Our March 2019 Meeting
The meeting began with the agreement that compliance is really about expectations and commitments. Using the Catalytic Thinking framework, the questions we began to address were therefore…

1) Whose expectations must we comply with? To whom are we making commitments?
2) What are those expectations and commitments?
3) For each of those expectations, what is the ultimate “why” for each one? What is at the heart of those commitments? What is important about them? What are they intended to accomplish?

The list of “to whom” we are making commitments was long and comprehensive, spring-boarding from “legal compliance” as the bare minimum. And while “the community” is always at the top of our minds, we made efforts to clearly define those people or entities with whom we directly engage – people who know who we are, and would therefore have specific expectations of us. And so, in addition to the community at large, we are making commitments to…

• State law
• Federal law
• The IRS
• Potential partners in our work
• Institutional Funders
• Donors, volunteers and other individuals investing their assets to help accomplish our mission
• Journalists / the media
• People doing research of all kinds (researching our work, researching different ways of being / doing the work of a social change org)
• Board members (our own, as well as board members of other orgs)
• Employees and contractors
• Vendors
• Participants in our programs (education programs, learning communities, etc.)
• Other organizations

For each of those groups, we asked the same question: What are their expectations of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

Here is what the board came up with. We hope you will add to this list in the comments below.

Federal law / the IRS
What does the IRS expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• File the 990 and comply with their rules related to that filing
• Evidence that our activities fit with the exempt purpose we have told them we would be working towards. Evidence that we are actually doing work towards that end goal.
• While not a law, there is an expectation that an organization will have at least 3 board members, even if (as is the case with our organization) the state in which we are incorporated only requires 1 board member.

State Law (Arizona)
What does the State of Arizona expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• File the appropriate annual filings, keeping our corporate status intact
• Minimum number of board members is 1
• Noting that there are few, if any, positive legal obligations (thou shall), there is the expectation that we will not do anything illegal (thou shall not).

Individuals Investing in our Mission
Individuals investing in our mission may be volunteers, financial supporters, resource donors of any kind. What do those individuals expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• Evidence that we are doing what we said we would do. That we are reaching for the vision we have said we will reach for, and that we are showing outcomes. That we are effective in accomplishing what we set out to accomplish.
• That we are showing accountability to the communities we serve
• That we are sharing (vs hoarding) power with those who will receive the benefit of our work – working with vs. working for people.
• They expect to be able to trust us – to be and do what we said, following the values we have said will guide our work.
• That we will connect with them as individuals, beyond just what they give. That we will appreciate them as a human, beyond their contribution.
• Honesty and transparency and openness
• That we will meet them where they are with what they feel they need
• They expect us to further something that is important to them.

Institutional Funders (Foundations, Governments)
What do institutional funders expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• Everything that individual supporters expect from us, plus…
• Don’t make them look bad. And ideally make them look GOOD. But there is a fear concern as well, that we not be a black mark in their audit.
• Foundations want us to be catalytic, unlocking resources they don’t have. “Priming the pump.”

Current and Future Partners (in Demonstration projects and other work)
What do our current and future partners expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• Much of what others expect from us, plus…
• That we do what we say we will do, specific to the work we’re doing together
• They will expect that we will work together as a team, figuring things out together as a “we”
• That each partner will bring their expertise
• That Catalytic Thinking will create the results we say it will
• That the work will benefit the missions of ALL parties
• That we will walk the talk of our values

Employees and Contractors
What do our employees and contractors expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• Much of what others expect from us, plus…
• Compensation for their work
• That their professional AND personal missions will be fulfilled
• Learning about and opportunities to practice Catalytic Thinking
• Being listened to (and recourse when they feel they are not being listened to)
• Dignity and respect and being treated fairly, equitably
• Meaning – work that is meaningful
• Mastery – the opportunity to excel at what they do
• That it will be a two-way investment. That the organization is investing in the employees, and the organization acknowledges that the employees are investing in the organization
• That they will have all the resources they need to create conditions for their success
• Efficacy. The power to make decisions.
• That they will be safe (physically, emotionally)
• That the work environment will be inclusive
• That the work environment will be fun

Participants in our Programs
What do participants in our programs expect of us as an organization? With what expectations and commitments are we expected to comply?

• Much of what others expect from us, plus…
• That they will be safe (physically, emotionally)
• That we will do what we say we will do / walk our talk
• The expectation of relationship and connection
• That they are part of a movement
• That whatever program they are participating in will be accessible, doable
• Inclusive – that we will make the effort to not just meet people where they are, but also with who they are
• That they will have fun!

At the end of every meeting at Creating the Future, we ask for reflections. What stood out to you? Were there aha’s? What made you pause and think?

Here are the reflections our board members shared. What are your reflections as you watch / read our meeting conversation?

Karl: The interests of all the people we’ve been talking about will often overlap, and may often be the same people. And if we can’t please everyone, who is the most important group of stakeholders we want to be accountable to? The community we intend to benefit. That will lead to the important questions of “What is the best way to be accountable?”

Justin: That there appear to be 3 main areas of expectations: Expectations around ensuring our values of dignity and efficacy; expectations around ensuring legal compliance; and expectations that focus on “who benefits and how.”

Angie: The importance of knowing who our beneficiaries are AND that we are talking directly with them about what they think and what they need. Because we are limited by our own biases.

Rebecca: The overarching umbrella of “Here’s what you can expect…” The power of acknowledging the systems we all live in and don’t even realize things could be different (command and control, stay in your box, you don’t make the decisions). Acknowledging that this may feel different because it is a different way of being.

Dimitri: The importance of reducing the social distance between the organization and the people and entities who have a stake in our success. The commitment to walking the talk of our values in action. And realizing that this is really a social contract, stating that this is what we are committing to, with all these parties.

Justin (reflecting upon other people’s reflections): Unless the board IS the community, you will have that social distance issue. Therefore, the board isn’t making decisions about how things work; they’re facilitating and ensuring that things are working. Which speaks to the topic of “boards” from a systems perspective vs. a body of actions.

Hildy: What’s good for one is good for everybody. That this is about how we be with each other. And how we be with each other is how we be with each other, and it doesn’t matter who you are. Also that we have talked about our having a “compliance-based board,” but that’s language isn’t who we are – it is reactive. And that we need to find another word that actually describes our intention, around creating conditions for success for all the people we’ve talked about.

As you listen to the meeting, and/or read through this summary, are there items you would add to any of the lists above? And what stands out to you in the conversation? We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you would like to be involved in this work to reshape how organizations are structured to accomplish social missions, let us know. We are eager for more people to join the party!

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