The History of InnovativeCommunities.org Foundation (ICO)
InnovativeCommunities.Org Foundation (ICO) was once just an idea in the head of John Mitchell. Little did he know that Bill Robson, who lived on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, shared some of that vision. Long before these two individuals met, they were developing and testing ideas that would eventually make up the worldwide operations of ICO.
The story begins in late 1988 in Canada, when John began developing the conceptual model of "Human Horizons". This organization focused on developing capacity to bring about social and community change. It achieved this by harnessing the power of something new called "the Internet." It also represented a new way of thinking about management and organizational processes. Throughout the 1990s, the online operations of Human Horizons provided the testing grounds for concepts that have come to define ICO.
A group of concerned citizens in Victoria, British Columbia started the Canadian Housing Research Foundation (CHRF) in 1998. It was a registered Canadian charity and it sought to advance social housing in Canada, but despite noble intentions, CHRF was inactive for some time. Meanwhile, Human Horizons was beginning to flourish and demonstrate that an online organization could function effectively.
CHRF became operationally active in 2002 under the management of the Community Economic Development Corporation of Victoria (CEDCO). The same people were on both Board of Directors but they remained legally distinct and they shared the offices and support staff.
CHRF purchased two buildings over the next two years, and a sense of excitement was growing. The two buildings, Cedar Grove and Banfield House, could together house 46 people. CHRF pre-leased them to the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA), which intended to operate programs for those with mental illness who were at risk of homelessness or who were already homeless. In fact, Cedar Grove was probably the first low-barrier "wet house" in BC and one of the first in North America. This designation means people could live there and benefit from support provided without giving up use of addictive substances.
Many people put in a tremendous amount of work to acquire these buildings. CHRF’s Board of Directors possessed great vision and tenacity, and they received much support from a few courageous groups and individuals: Coast Capital Savings Credit Union; Dennis Siwala, who worked as a department head at VIHA; and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). With these elements of support in place, CHRF was able to purchase the buildings, with very high debt/asset ratios (essentially over 100%).
John Mitchell accepted an invitation in 2004 to join the Board of Directors of both CEDCO and CHRF. He brought to these roles extensive experience in Human Resources and Operational Management. He met fellow board member Bill Robson, a real estate professional in Victoria. It became clear that CEDCO and CHRF had severe management, organizational and financial problems. Drastic action was necessary to avoid receivership and loss of community assets.
John wrote a report called “Future Organization” in November 2004, in which he outlined the operating principles developed at Human Horizons. These principles soon proved important. Essentially, the report recommended the splitting of CEDCO and CHRF. CEDCO would stand on its own, instead of receiving management fees from CHRF. CHRF would become an online organization with new and open management concepts and completely staffed by volunteers.
The separation was eventually accomplished after a few months, after a huge amount of stress and effort for Bill and John. The two agreed to join forces and "hang together or hang separately." Bill would focus on property management and development, and John on organization management and strategic development. They decided to fight to keep CHRF’s buildings as community assets. They both then resigned from the CEDCO board and handed files concerning questionable managerial financial transactions to the relevant authorities. CEDCO, left to its own financial and organizational resources, quickly went out of operation.
Thus began CHRF’s long climb back to fiscal and operational credibility. John and Bill were faced with $40,000. worth of immediate short-term debts and liabilities, challenging cash flows with the building's leases, and mortgages that possibly equalled assets.
In need of a fresh start, they renamed CHRF the Canadian Community Housing Foundation in the summer of 2005. A new organization emerged, modelled on the recommendations of the "Future Organization" report, with the brand and Internet domain name of InnovativeCommunities.Org. Overheads were slashed and ICO became an online/virtual organization, staffed and run by volunteers with the offices existing only in the Internet.
ICO achieved a positive cash flow within a year and began to actively recruit additional volunteers worldwide. These volunteers brought passion, ideas, creativity and knowledge. This has resulted in tremendous growth in capability and the number of people around the world whose lives are positively affected.
ICO members unanimously passed a new Constitution in December 2008, and a new name, InnovativeCommunities.Org Foundation, a few weeks later. ICO has grown from two individuals to more than 120 volunteer team members and over 1000 ICO Friends worldwide, with Communities and Initiatives in twelve countries (as of 2011). The organization continues to grow quickly and attract new talent.
ICO, built on strong fiscal foundations and adequate investment endowments from the sale of Cedar Grove, is able to operate worldwide, with overheads and administration costs covered well into the foreseeable future. All donations received go directly to whatever Initiatives in the ICO Communities they are designated for. No money is taken from donations for corporate overhead or administration. ICO even pays the bank transfer fees.
The experiences that Bill and John encountered with CEDCO and CHRF have strongly influenced how ICO looks today. Our accounting practices are totally transparent, and as far as we know, we are the first organization in the world to show our accounts live online 24/7 for anyone to see. ICO is administered entirely by volunteers, which removes the incentive for personal financial gain and corruption. The Foundation also has a Board that does not get involved in operational management. The Board concentrates on the overview of governance and the strategic direction of ICO. The Chair and CEO acts as the link between operations and the Board. Furthermore, only active team members can vote as members of the Foundation. It is the active members of ICO who control the organization through their democratic votes at the Annual General Meeting. This enhances overall transparency and accountability.
At the 2011 Annual General Meeting (AGM) the membership agreed that John and Bill, as part of the ICO Succession Plan, could delegate their respective operational roles to our ICO Group Leaders and would continue as Chair and Vice-Chair respectively until the AGM 2013. The ICO Succession Plan developed by John in 2005 is steadily unfolding with many younger people bringing their fresh ideas and passion for change.
The Future Organization is Now...