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

 

New Perspectives January 24, 2017

Filed under: geography,nonprofit development,organization — Saera @ 11:03 pm

I haven’t posted for far too long. Shortly after my last post, a lot changed in my life. Throughout the autumn of 2015, there were long conversations and rounds of trying to figure out things before I parted ways with a former long-term partner that December. I found an awesome new job as a development coordinator at a local nonprofit in November 2015, which has given me a host of new skills and opportunities. It also has resulted in a much deeper understanding of how non-profits work. As I have grown personally and professionally and held dialogues with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances over the last year and a half, the core ideals of Sunflower Village have remained steady, while my understanding about how to manifest this dream into reality have been refined, clarified, and re-imagined.

One of the critical developments has been my learning about the roles of boards of directors in non-profits. During the discussion groups of 2015, I imagined that the board could simply be comprised of all of the villagers. There are three reasons I have moved away from this:

  • 1)The role of the board is more extensive and ongoing than I previously understood.
  • 2) I realized that some residents may not have the capacity or enthusiasm that is critical for an engaged, working board
  • 3) Sunflower VIllage needs the perspectives and expertise of non-residents who are passionate about the mission

As I have come to better understand how boards work, I have somewhat redesigned the organizational structure that the group created in 2015. I also further worked out detail on sharing labor and money.

Another shift is the decision to base Sunflower Village in southern Vermont. This region is conducive to the creation/development of this kind of intentional community for multiple reasons: the relative affordability of land in the quantities desirable, the cultural values of the region, the agricultural climate, the abundance of natural resources (such as land, fresh water, firewood), and legal policies and practices conducive to a community of tiny houses.

Vermont is a predominantly rural, low-population state, which still has a tradition of small-scale agriculture and gardening. Many of the towns are small, and like so many rural areas, are experiencing challenges of a shrinking and aging population as young people seek education and opportunities that rural areas presently struggle to offer. While being somewhat removed from large urban centers such as Boston & NYC, can access both of these centers via the I-91 highway, meaning it is only about 2 ½ -3 hours to Boston and 3 ½ -4 hours to NYC.

A third major development has been the addition of Joy Auciello to the Triad. I met Joy as a fellow student at Marlboro College. Many people have contributed to Sunflower Village over the last 10 years. Joy is one of the few to take her own initiative in furthering its manifestation, as she is presently doing through her research and projects in as she completes her MBA in Managing for Sustainability at Marlboro College’s later this spring. I am very excited to have her working with me. Joy does a lot to deepen and expand my thinking, and we are getting practical things done to get things going.

I am starting to reconnect to people to share the present vision for Sunflower Village, understand what concerns and interests people, and how people want to become involved, whether as Board Members, founding resident Villagers, or Supporters (who don’t presently wish to live at Sunflower Village, but are otherwise interested. Feel free to share here what you think at this point!

Thanks for reading!

 

Movement! March 1, 2013

Filed under: nonprofit development,organization — Saera @ 8:38 pm

It has been far too long since this blog was updated, and I’m excited to tell you about what’s been going on. In December, I followed up with a few people who had previously expressed a willingness to be on the Board of Directors. We held our first meeting in late January and began the process of getting on the same page. I shared a few documents I’ve been working on, including a draft of the mission statement and our bylaws. We spent some of the time discussing our format as a board. I also shared what I anticipated some of our first programs could be, as well as thoughts on some programs concepts for later in our journey. We concluded by setting our next time to meet.

In Janurary, I also reconnected with a wonderful mentor in Alternative Economic studies whom I originally met in Dorchester, MA through another organization. Angela is encouraging and supportive as well as brilliant in her own right. She gave me a great book, Alternatives to Economic Globalization, which was an exciting and inspiring read on many ways besides global capitalism/neoliberalism to approach economic function. At present, she is back in Sardinia, Italy as a visiting scholar, sharing how Land Trusts are being used in the US. I got to talk with her at one point via Skype, and we have exchanged some lovely emails.

In February, our Board reconfigured itself a bit. We had to reschedule our Board Meeting. I’m excited for our second meeting. I have the benefit of good amounts of time to think about the Sunflower Village Initiative while my hands are busy at work, and I’m preparing to write more on the vision of the nonprofit.

More soon!

 

Patience, Compromise, Focus October 11, 2011

Patience, compromise and focus seem to be the order of the day.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the University and I was fortunate enough to snag a few minutes with the professor I respect most. We had a conversation about where I’m at and where I’m determined to go. I told him my thoughts and plans. He understands me well. He helped me re-recognize that my classic obstacles is that “you want it, you want it all, and it you want it yesterday”. He helped me set it straight. “Get yourself the job, give yourself time to get used to it. Build your living community. It is going to take time and all of your energy as it’s no easy thing. THEN when that is somewhat established, you can do your non-profit or maybe go to grad-school. But if you try to do everything at once, you aren’t going to do any of it well”. This is hard stuff for me to hear, but I can listen and get myself to change when this man says it. It works: that its, it helps me polish myself so I can accomplish what I want to. So I keep going back, tears or no (usually some tears).

The other thing that Prof and I talked about, echoed in conversations with others I trust and respect, is the need for compromise. Hypothetically it is clear to me that I cannot wake up tomorrow in the world of which I dream. I have to compromise with the world as it exists, or I will become paralyzed in dreamer’s theory and never able to move it to action. The tricky part is how to compromise without feeling like I’m selling out. What is key here is to remember that I have a transformative drive. That is to say, my desire to build a better society is not affected by what work I do or who I do it for. Still, there are some things which I would find entirely too hypocritical in light of what I have concluded so far, such as working for a fast-food, factory-farm supplied establishment.

Recent events on a national scale, the Occupy movements, are something of growing interest to me. At first I felt only mildly interested – up til now, widespread perception and my personal experience of the effectiveness of demonstrations is that they don’t seem to accomplish much. Partly because in contemporary decades, they are too often too easy to ignore and dismiss. This time it is different. The protests on Wall Street have spread to other cities and towns across the USA. It is exciting to see so many Americans uniting around this kind of action. It is sprouting critically needed dialogues, between people’s convergent needs and suffering, and their diverse voices and experiences and concerns. My appreciation for this dialogue is accompanied by adrenaline rushes of excitement, this is the kind of dialogue which makes me feel happy, hopeful, excited.

This morning, a convoluted thought process brought me around to an epiphany about how my personal struggles are reflected on a wider scale, and vice versa. It was a torrent of thoughts and visualizations and experiences, and suddenly I found that my brain had rewired to allow a broader perspective, for compromise. For a long time, I have been very suspicious of all corporations. But what I came around to this morning was that we now have corporations which empower us. Without the companies that develop and make my laptop, my phone, my internet service, etc, I would be a lot further away from my dreams. I would not be now sharing this post with you, or having dialogues between towns or states or countries at the ease of touching my finger to a button or a screen. Some of these companies don’t just provide world-changers with tools, but themselves offer a renewed hope to families and individuals. There are companies with real benefits (not that fake bare-minimum stuff), with unions and potential for living wages. That’s not to say that we should not Occupy, ask questions, have dialogues. I still aspire for new economic systems (note the s), which provide greater stability and self-reliance in Americans. But we need some of those corporations, and I need to start being nicer to those. Wall Street is not going to go away tomorrow, and we’d be in some trouble if it did. I want to be clear, and encourage protesters to be clear, about which corporations (I will not say “who”) we protest, and why. I’m not mad at AT&T

Patience, me. Job first, practice wise compromises, continue dialogues and building relationships.  Patience world-changers, non-violent social revolution is needs be a slow process, full of dialogue and self-reflection. It also needs meaningful, sustained action and well-considered development of alternatives. Keep it up!

 

 

Productive in the World July 7, 2011

I went to DELA (Don’t Eat Lunch Alone) in Springfield for the first time. I found out about it through the Pioneer Valley Local First group on Linkedin. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Don’t Eat Lunch Alone is the idea that lunch can be used as valuable networking time. This group brings together people to discuss ideas relating to business and employment. I found the discussion interesting and I met some people who I think will be helpful with the Sunflower Village Initiative, so I’m glad I went and I’m likely to go again.

I also went to the Forbes Library and wandered around until I realized what I wanted to look at: Treehouse architecture. I found two books, one of which I know I’ve seen before used and desperately want to buy but can’t. So I read that until the library closed. After  picking up my partner from work, we came home and I grabbed a quick dinner of canned soup and grilled cheese, then left again. I went to a volunteer training for Habitat for Humanity. Now I can volunteer on sites for them, not just stuff envelopes. 😀 I’m really excited about the non-profit skills I’m going to learn from them, in addition to house-building skills.