Integrity in Action: Discussion

If you have been following the work of our board as we deconstruct and rethink what a board can actually make possible for the organization, you know that the focus on our board is on integrity. At our board’s meetings in April and May, we began diving into what integrity will look like in action. What will this integrity body actually DO?

The original thinking about that integrity focus had to do with an ongoing dialogue with our community, to know if we were actually walking our talk and meeting the commitments we had made to all those people. As we seek to put the rubber to the road, though, what structures and mechanisms will help the board answer any questions our community might have?

These are the kinds of questions we began grappling with at our April meeting, and continued in May. And while we feel like we have established some answers, we also know that this will be an ever-evolving learning process, as we continue to experiment with turning the “Integrity board in theory” into an active example of our values in action. The following is a summary of those conversations.

The Two Functions of Integrity: Values and Compliance
At our April meeting, we began by discussing the interrelationship between the two functions our board will hold – monitoring the organization’s legal compliance, and ensuring we are walking the talk of our values with integrity. The end result of that conversation was a primary focus on values and integrity, seeing legal compliance as just one aspect of that larger and more mission-critical focus.

Here are some of the thoughts our board had about those two functions:

Compliance role: Is this a whole board function? A committee function? Is this like an audit committee, which is comprised of NON-board members?

  • Standards for Excellence already has a legal checklist of compliance. Also the items that Guidestar posts are compliance items
  • Compliance is operational, NOT governance
  • Create a compliance team, who are stewards of compliance, who reports to the board at regular intervals
  • Once a year we all look at the 990 and ask questions
  • Compliance is a support for the board in its integrity role. Like our families – we don’t focus our lives on filing our taxes.

Integrity role: Day-to-day, are we making decisions that reflect the values that we espouse?

  • Focus isn’t about what we’re doing, but HOW we’re doing it
  • This is the more important role when it comes to accomplishing our mission. Many organizations are fully compliant, but accomplish nothing.
  • When we stop saying this is a board meeting, and we start saying, “This is a body ensuring integrity,” we can invite more voices to that.
  • Are we meeting the commitments we have made to whomever we have made commitments? Are we meeting those expectations with integrity? The only way we will know is by having conversations.
  • Those questions of expectations are the highest potential of the board. ONE of the conditions for success is whether we are legally compliant.
  • As we bring on a new team of staff, what do we think are essential questions for ensuring our values? THOSE types of questions are the most important.

Activating our Integrity Role
At our May meeting, we homed in on that important integrity role. Walking through Catalytic Thinking, we examined how the board will activate that role. What is this going to look like in practice, in terms of the day-to-day work of the organization? 

First we reviewed what we mean by an “integrity board,” to be sure we were all on the same page. 

● Less an “integrity board”, more an “integrity body”
● People have an image in their minds of what a “board” is and that’s not what we’re trying to do
● Decisions would be made locally by the people who would be most affected and that the center of that platform would be our values
● More movement-like and community-like, than organization-like
● The Board will not be a decision-making body, instead it will ensure that Creating the Future is “walking the talk” and meeting the expectations of the community in all areas (accounting, hiring, compensation, etc.)
● Integrity to the expectations of our regulators (compliance) is only a small piece of this
● Creating the Future is a movement (focused on something ambitious), rather than an organization (focused on compliance towards a specific goal)
● Values are key because they determine how decisions are made
● Too often boards spend short periods of time developing goals and philosophies but don’t revisit them or incorporate them into the work
● Key distinction is “integrity to what?” We often think of integrity to the organization, which boils down to financial position and legal liability. Instead we are looking at integrity to the core belief system.
● Integrity to the organization is a minimum. The sustainability of any individual organization is not what matters, but legally this is what Boards are charged with upholding. This results in strong organizations, where nothing is really changing in communities. We need to be accountable to something higher.
● There is a tendency to devalue what is not on the balance sheet. Focusing on the organization creates competition and a scarcity mindset.

What would this look like in practice?
On a day-to-day basis, what would the board be doing if we were fulfilling that integrity role? How do we ensure that we, as an integrity body, are holding ourselves and others to account?

● We would need some way of knowing what people are doing. Investing the time in understanding what people are doing.
● Practicing and implementing the Catalytic Thinking process.
● Accountability – there would need to be a mechanism of knowing that Catalytic Thinking is happening 
● Asking and listening. Learning and appreciation, not oversight.
● Having expectations that are clear to everybody. Staff should know what the board will be asking in order to fulfill their integrity role. No surprises.
● Everyone feels supported by the values, knows what that means, and the clear understanding exists throughout the entire system
● Acting within the values in our own work as a board
● Doing a check against Catalytic Thinking in a way that is investigating the integrity of the system
● Instead of “what happened?” asking “what thinking was involved?”
● Asking “which of our values are you seeing in each piece of the operations?”
For staff to have integrity in pursuing the goals and values of the organization, they need an environment where we have conversations about our outcomes and values.
● The Board is the host for a space to ask a particular kind of operational question (for example, are our operational decisions in line with our values?)

What is the highest potential of the Board’s integrity work? What would it be possible for us to achieve, if the Board fulfilled this integrity role?

● To create emotional safety to be able to weigh in on what’s happening. Not just what are we thinking, but what are we feeling. Board-level “gut-check.”
● Freedom to get things wrong, to learn
● RESOURCE: Trading Measurements for Witnessing. We spend too much time trying to measure the impact of our theory, when often the most powerful thing we can do is just witness what is happening in real time
● Demonstrate that there is another way, rather than just putting systems in place that measure activity
● Practitioners are supported and trusted in doing work that advances the organizational values and outcomes
● The board creates integrity spaces where we can talk about our values, and witnesses the integrity of the operation
● Assure staff and other organizations that it’s ok to be creative and work towards this different approach
● Policies are a substitute for conversation. When the board does integrity work, it might look like a conversation around the kitchen table. Asking questions like “What is going on?” “How do you feel about it?”
● Board and staff don’t have to be separated. Together, we are a body that can put together our collective knowledge to solve issues
● We have to stop calling it a “Board.” We are co-participants in the work.
● RESOURCE: Civil Society, by Michael Edwards. A civil society requires 1) people coming together, and 2) a space where people come together and discuss what a civil society should look like. It is the Board’s role to hold that space and facilitate discussions.

What conditions would we need to put in place to perform this role?

● Have knowledge and skills about how to create and hold space for conversations and disagreements
● Answer the questions: if everyone is collaborating and co-leading, what does it look like for the team to work together? Board meetings are often separate from staff meetings, so what does cross-pollination look like? How are these answers built into the structure of the system?
● Make it clear that everyone is invited and welcomed. What does it take for people to know that they are welcome?
● Clarity of expectations. People often come to conversations and there are both written and unwritten rules about who can speak and how.
● Keep it simple
● Understanding of Catalytic Thinking, organization values, etc.

What do we need to prioritize if we are going to act in this integrity role?
Given the conversation so far, what would you like to see be the structure of our next meeting?

● The meeting should include conversation about the structural questions that are being considered. These should be substantive enough to warrant this level of conversation.
● What are the values/outcomes/considerations of decisions that are being made.
● Is there space for participants to ask questions?
● Don’t overthink it
● Discuss the big structural issues and go through Catalytic Thinking questions
● Which of our values does this decision/action uphold?

Is there anything that anyone needs as a result of this conversation?

● Deeper understanding of Catalytic Thinking
● Incorporating a gut-check as a routine practice in the process

As we step into this role and begin applying it to the ongoing activities of the organization, we know we will learn and our systems will evolve. We look forward to seeing where that journey takes us!

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