We trek through life purposefully, aimlessly, with goals in mind, sometimes wandering – never fully knowing where we’re going but so sure at the same time. Mysteries unfold, events just happen, and we’re left to find the thread that connects it all. Our mission. Our intentions. Our values. The foundations of who we are. They are the causers. They are us.
Humans beings are complex. Each person is composed of unique sets of characteristics that dictate the ways in which they think and behave. And these characteristics vary across just about every aspect of how we might begin to define ourselves – our motivations and values, our opinions and points of view, our learning styles and communication preferences, and much more. Now imagine a board of directors, composed of many of complex and varied individuals, tasked to deliberate and decide issues with consensus, conform to uniform organizational standards, and operate under a single mission statement and set of values. One may begin to appreciate how difficult this can be, particularly as the number of board members increases.
Not-for-profit organizations are filled with operational formalities that tend to be more defined has the number of participants increase and the scope of operations broadens. Some examples include: agendas, minutes, meetings, Robert’s Rules of Order, and governance structures. But curiously, the reasons behind these formalities are sometimes not well understood. Some people wonder as to why one might need to use the Robert’s Rules of Order? Others think thought about why informal discussion have formal, circulated agendas? Its even observed that some board members question why strategic boards exist separately of operational committees?
This essay will explore the possible reasons behind formal organizational practices, particularly as they relate to board members, and their effects on not-for-profit organizations. This essay will also be the first to describe certain organizational practices as being organizational tools that facilitate social scalability – effectively allowing multiple complex and varied individuals to work cohesively under a single, guiding mission.
In February 2017, the term social scalability was first described by Nick Szabo, partially as follows:
“Social scalability is the ability of an institution –- a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants’ behaviors — to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate. Social scalability is about the ways and extents to which participants can think about and respond to institutions and fellow participants as the variety and numbers of participants in those institutions or relationships grow. . .” 
Using Szabo’s definition, we can infer that any organizational practice helping to:
- Overcome human shortcomings that limit participation,
- Facilitate participation, or
- Increase the number of individuals successfully participating,
can be said to facilitate social scalability in that organization.
We will now explore a few organizational practices, and how they contribute to social scalability in not-for-profit organizations.
Application: Democratic participation in large groups
The Robert’s Rules of Order (“The Rules”) are a near perfect example of an organizational practice that facilitates individual participation, particularly in parliamentary circumstances (but also in not-for-profit organizations) where democratic discussion and decision making is of high importance. The theory behind The Rules echoes the very definition of social scalability:
- Protection of the rights of members, and those whom they represent.
- The requirement for a deliberative process of full and free discussion as a prerequisite to democratic decision-making.
- Protection against instability. 
In practice, the appearance and necessity of The Rules vary by circumstance, but are generally used more often on boards with a larger number of directors, or colloquially, with ‘higher functioning’ boards.
There are clear examples where The Rules help to bring vote and decision to long-winded discussions. Even from the experience of the reader, one may recall circumstances where The Rules were irrelevant to group size and participant dynamics, and others where healthy, democratic discussion would not have been possible without them.
Application: Well informed, on-topic discussion
Committee notes, agendas, meetings, and minutes are all useful tools that help to organize and give structure to discussion, pertinent information, and organization decisions – thereby taking advantage of the availability heuristic to facilitate relevant and engaged participation among the board.
Committee notes prepare members for specific discussions, agendas set order, limits, and priorities, meetings allocate resources to formal discussion, and minutes ensure directors are on the same page – regardless of attendance marked.
The formalization of these practices are detrimental to successful board participation and to the operations of the organization. One may imagine, or even recall experiences of, how chaotic a meeting can be if no preparatory materials are circulated or if no agenda is given. Worse yet, imagine a board that keeps its minutes in the mind and circulates them via word of mouth!
Application: Relevant distribution of pertinent information
Not-for-profit organizations must frequently engage a large number of stakeholders (think members, other directors, staff, the public) to make informed and timely decisions. Governance structures help to facilitate information flow and participation at every level. We can observe transitions from uni- to bi- to tri- cameral governance structures as the complexity of operations and the number of participants increase. Because of these formal structures, every individual has a clear role and knows where to go for information: staff report to supervisors, directors report to members, the CEO reports to the board and so on.
One may be able to recall personal circumstances where two or more people, without governance structure, failed to operate because of lack of leadership or well-defined roles – and how a governance structure would certainly have helped!
Social scalability is, essentially, about the number of people that can successfully participate in an organization. We’ve briefly explored how The Rules facilitate democratic discussion and decision making, how agendas, meetings, and minutes facilitate on-topic discussion, and how governance structures facilitate information flows and participation through organizations.
Conceptualizing organizational practices as being facilitators of social scalability may be a useful approach in recognizing their importance and in increasing their practice. It may even be possible to use the lens of social scalability to assess whether or not novel organizational practices, such as Decentralized Autonomous Organizations , may be candidates for widespread adoption.
… A topic for future discussion.
Szabo N. Money, blockchains, and social scalability. http://unenumerated.blogspot.ca/2017/02/money-blockchains-and-social-scalability.html. 2017. Accessed on Oct.7th, 2017.
Henry M. Robert et al. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th Edition. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. 2000.
Wikipedia Foundation Inc. Decentralized Autonomous Organization. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decentralized_autonomous_organization. 2017. Accessed on Oct. 16th, 2017.