Friday, September 25, 2009

Fun With Governance

I'm really looking forward to speaking at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa next Wednesday, Sept. 30.

This will be at a meeting of their Regional Food Systems Working Group, which is a program of the Iowa Value Chain Partnerships initiative sponsored by The Leopold Center. Very cool work. Links below.

I need their help and can't wait to discuss our Iowa County initiative to create a local food-processing cluster.

The biggest issues we are coming across in launching this food-processing cluster are governance related. This will be a wonky subject to some, but the issue is critical. We need new organizational structures to match market opportunities and community economic development needs.

In my opinion the experiments we most need to create should be designed to test alternative business governance structures. We need to take existing and emerging governance tools and mix them up into new platforms for doing enterprise creation and economic development.

I believe we need to experiment with new combinations of entity types. We've got LLCs, cooperatives, S-Corps, partnerships of all flavors, and now even L3Cs. It used to be that you had to pick one entity style and run with it. I think there are a lot of possibilities for doing great development work by creating projects with multiple governance types set up in advance that work in service to one another. Combining the strengths of different types of governance creates many unique tools for creating successful economic development as I see it.

For instance, I'm now helping run a non-profit (or social profit enterprise as my daughter E would say). If I were to advise someone about starting a non-profit I would have them look into organizing legally as a standard 501(c)3 (or (c)6) but having the attorney embed a for-profit LLC within that non-profit structure when it is created. This way you can operate the mission as chartered, but you embed a workable funding source from the outset.

It is always cheaper and easier to put these designs into play at from the outset, especially when outside investors and financial stakeholders are involved. Yes, structures can always be changed later, but it can be complicated, expensive and time-consuming.

That's why we have worked on the forms of governance for the Iowa County food processing cluster so carefully. We want to design and execute a successful experiment that can be reproduced and improved on.

We had only considered cooperative governance at the beginning for a number of reasons, but co-ops have their limitations, just like every other form of governance.

What I seem to be learning in the food cluster is the same lesson I found in my non-profit world: there is a great need for experimenting with governance tools to produce hybrid structures that can work efficiently in this new market. You need to create enterprises that make a profit and are sustainable. You need a way to fit this entity into the world of private and public investors and align everyone's expectations with the community and economic development goals of that entity from the outset.

So, we continue to explore all of these paths. I had a great meeting this week at Isthmus Engineering in Madison, which is organized as a unique form of cooperative. They do some of the coolest design and production work I've ever seen. Check out the YouTube video on their home page linked below.

At this meeting also I got to meet Melissa Hoover who is the Executive Director of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. I learned a great deal about challenges facing new enterprises and alternate forms of governance nationwide. Melissa is a really nice person and a wonderful business resource.

I'm convinced the next thing needed for regional economic development are experiments of all kinds in non-traditional and hybrid forms of enterprise governance. Then when those experiments are run and proven effective, their structures can be reproduced inexpensively.

That's what economic developers and funders of all kinds should put some attention into. Right now it's hard and complicated for individual economic developers and entrepreneurs to create these structures. It shouldn't be. Let's do the experiments. Let's find what works. Let's discover which paths are reproducible. Then we can make our results - especially the design of successful hybrid governance models - available to others at a price and hassle-factor they can afford.

Ready access to inexpensive, reproducible hybrid governance structures is a vital, missing piece for regional economic development. I am thrilled to be able to help design experiments with this goal as the object of the work.

Yes, a wonky topic, but I can't think of anything more needed in the world of sustainable economic development right now.

With the help of great new friends I'm convinced our Iowa County initiative can make a lasting contribution to the field of regional economic development and building better regional food systems.

Makes me hungry.

Aldo Leopold Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. Regional Food Systems Working Group

Isthmus Engineering

United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives

Introduction to L3C governance. Short introduction to Low-Profit Limited Liability Companies. Our newest entity form, now emerging state by state.

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