Sunflowervillager's Blog

Growing into community

Simplify! Flow charts help! Find the Milestones! October 22, 2017

Over the last month, I’ve made real progress on the business plan with support from the board, my advisor, and an architect! This post is primarily on what I have been learning through the process of developing the business plan. The short short version is: Simplify! Consult the experts. Flow-charts (even miniature ones) help table conundrums, and figure out your project Phases & Milestones!

Simplify!

The conversation started with Market Research. I had been focusing on the intentional community movement and how Sunflower Village is different from other communities. My advisor helped me realize that this section needs to be much more powerful, and I can do that by clarifying what are markets are and who our competitors are in those markets. With the help of the board, I realized that our main markets are housing, tiny house placement, and intentional community. Housing, especially affordable housing is a major issue in Southern Vermont. People with tiny houses are looking for places to put them, and people want their lifestyle to deeply incorporate community. My advisor also pointed out that focusing on the term “intentional community” may not be helping us. We draw on audiences who may not be familiar with the intentional communities movement, and they do not need to be in order to appreciate the benefits of Sunflower Village. I still include it in the marketing section as people with an interest in cohousing and intentional communities may find what they are looking for in Sunflower Village, but we need to avoid having language that feels exclusive.

My advisor also suggested removing much of the philosophical language and putting it in a “Paper Basket” or aPhilosophy document. I am finding this helpful as I kept feeling like I had to explain the why for everything. I think this is a useful thing to have available, but I want the Business Plan to be focused on the logistics of how Sunflower Village will work, not arguing why they should be that way. Shortly after this discussion, I went on a weekend retreat with my extended spiritual community. I came home with a fresh perspective on building community and some of the core principles of Sunflower Village. Combined with the discussions with my advisor, I realized that I needed to drastically simplify my approach in other ways too. I saw that the Triad approach to governance is ridiculous for a very small group, which Sunflower Village will be at the beginning. Essentially I came back (again!) to David Grant’s point about the life cycle of organizations. I need to figure out how Sunflower Village will work for each phase if I am going to give prospective Villagers and investors any meaningful understanding of what I am asking them to be involved in.

I also saw that the idea of having each board member be a key person for the different components of the buisness plan was not effective, as some members were waiting for clarification on earlier pieces before they could make any significant progress. At our October Board Meeting, I proposed that, once I pulled out some of the philosophy parts and work on developing phases, we can go through the sections together, using Google Docs collaboration tools to edit, comment, and make suggestions as a conversation between us.

Consult the experts

On Monday, I had a great meeting with Aviva. She is a friend of mine and an architect who has worked on developing cohousing communities. We talked for three hours on dinner about planning for common houses, community social dynamics, the importance of site plans, least expensive ways to place tiny houses in keeping with building code, and a little bit about kibbutz. Overall, my conversation with her was full of key insights and useful reminders, including components I had researched some years ago.  For example, Aviva reminded me that existing land trusts can be useful not only in obtaining land, but in doing some of the ground work research, negotiating with towns, and finding funding. It was an inspiring conversation, and it bounced around my mind throughout the week.

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The Common House Conundrum.

I got stuck yesterday. Blocking out Phase one was easy for me, but as I tried to dig into the rest of them, I was having a hard time figuring out what would happen when between the beginning five years of Sunflower Village and the ideal Sunflower Village I imagine. I knew there was a lot to do and grow between those places, but I struggled to break it down. I found that a contingency was holding me back: the land. What kind of property will Sunflower Village look for? Undeveloped property open to shape according to our needs, or a place with a building? Aviva had pointed out to me that cohousing communities have to decide whether to build a Common House from the beginning or later. If they build it later and focus on individual dwellings, they often do not have the funds or plans for it later. She also said that it is generally harder to try to fit an already existing building to the needs of a community and can require remodeling which can ultimately be just as big a project as building a Common House. I liked the idea of finding an existing property because it will already have space and utilities, offering the opportunity for people to live there while they construct tiny houses. I basically created a little flow chart for myself on the issue, and that let me refocus on developing the phases.

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Phases & Milestones

One of the great questions Aviva had for me was “How will you know when it’s time to transition to the Triad?” That was a great thing for her to ask me! This question helped me when I was feeling stuck in making progress on developing the phases of Sunflower Village yesterday. It reminded me of some of the tools from my Outcomes and Evaluations class at Marlboro. In particular, I needed to incorporate Results-Based Accountability. This tool was developed as a way to help organizations with social missions measure their impact, and I love its directness. It asks people to answer three questions:

  1. What did we do?
  2. How well did we do it?
  3. Is anyone better off?

I developed a variation of this in future tense to help me think:

  1. What are we doing?
  2. How will it show that we are doing it well?
  3. How will we know if Villagers are better off?

Using these questions to inspire my thinking, I dug into the social & economic components, and finally got a flow going. I now have a draft of  three phases that includes for land, governance, social, and economic  milestones. I believe that having these phases outlined will clarify the whole business plan! I certainly feel a lot more clear!

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Summer Realizations & the Business Plan September 21, 2017

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A tiny sunflower from my porch garden. Grad school while working full time makes it hard to keep up with a garden!

This summer was the last term of classes required for my Master’s of Business Administration program. One of the courses I took was Nonprofit Law & Ethics. Over the course of the term it became apparent to me that 501(c)3 status might not be the best option for Sunflower Village. The primary reason for this is the issue of inurement, which means that people who are the board of directors of a non-profit cannot financially or economically benefit from it. This is a major issue, because I believe that a crucial aspect of the concept of Sunflower Villager is that people can develop systems to address the challenges that face them, rather than just having solutions handed to them from someone else. This includes participating in leadership roles such as the Board of Directors.

If Sunflower Village is not a nonprofit, what is it? After reviewing some of the options together, the Sunflower Village Board of Directors has decided that the designation of L3C seems most appropriate.  L3C stands for Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporation. This type of organization is a business that intentionally limits its profits to shareholders so that it can support a social mission. Such an organization lacks the restriction on board members benefiting from its work, while still being able to pursue a variety of sources of funding, including those which are project based and oriented toward social enterprises.

So now what? This fall, I am finishing my studies at Marlboro College’s with my Masterwork Project, and for this project with the support of the Board and several advisors, I am writing a business plan for Sunflower Village! Throughout the next several months, we are digging into the details of just how Sunflower Village will work. As I do so, I plan to write here about the process of developing a business plan, including challenges, realizations, and shifts.

Sunflower Village focuses much more on economic issues than most intentional communities: among other things, it is intended to be a mixed-income community that promotes economic stability through increased economic integration. Because we draw on multiple economic strategies, some of the biggest challenges are figuring out how exactly we plan to use those strategies, and how those different aspects of this community will work together. We already have a lot of great ideas! Some of them we have flushed out quite well, like the dynamics of tiny houses and a community center. Others, like the income and labor exchange need a lot of deep consideration, clarity , and detailed planning.

Fortunately, this focus on the business plan is already helping with that! Just a couple of days ago, I was reflecting on David Grant’s lesson about the life stages of an organization I realized that it might be easier to think about the income and labor exchange if we started with how much it might cost to pay for a mortgage, utilities, and taxes, and then consider how much income would have to be generated per person working an external job for someone to be able to work 20-40 hours a week at Sunflower Village. The calculations I did around this have me beginning to tie the income and labor exchange much more closely to the beginning phase of the community, specifically the number of people we will have. It seems to me like 5 “tiny” households of 1-3 people each is a great start for the fledgling community, so I am playing around with that.

In a couple of months when the business plan is mostly complete, I will hold an information session to overview Sunflower Village and the business plan! Space may be limited, so if you would like to attend, let me know! I’ll post more details here when I have them. In the meantime, mark your calendar for Saturday, December 9, when I will be presenting this project at Marlboro College!

 

Kickoff Meeting + Mystery Seeds! May 3, 2017

We had a great board kickoff meeting today! Four of us met this evening. It was cool to have three awesome supporters meet each other at last. We discussed where things are with Sunflower Village right now. We’re working on our strategy to apply for nonprofit status, and we’re looking for people who are interested in Sunflower Village, whether they’d like to think about becoming a villager or just have an interest in intentional communities, economic justice, sustainable living, or tiny houses.

Our next meeting is in June, but we’re already planning the conversations we’re going to have between now and then, about nonprofits, organizational structure, and sustainability.

On an earthy note, yesterday I finally got my hands in the dirt and did some planting. I have seeds set for basil, Purple Cherokee tomatoes, Brown Berry cherry tomatoes, coriander, and dill from the landlord I had in Amherst. But best of all are the mystery sunflowers. I saved the seed on the head of a sunflower I grew in 2015, but I have no idea which variety it was. I’m excited to see how they and all the Sunflower Village seeds I’ve been planting since then bloom this year. Mystery Sunflower Seeds planted 5-2-17.jpg