RiggsHealy_1_200Patricia Healy, ULI vice chair of district councils, speaks about organizational changes and the impact they will have on ULI’s district councils.

Over the past decade, ULI’s district council program has experienced dramatic growth, greatly expanding the institute’s ability to positively influence land use decision making in local markets around the globe. In 2000, there were 36 district councils, all in the United States; now, there are 51 in the United States and 14 district councils (called national councils) in Europe. Each has evolved into a creative enterprise focused on advancing ULI’s mission with programs, activities, and services tailored to the specific needs and characteristics of the market it serves.

Three years ago, ULI assembled a working group of ULI leaders, chaired by Patricia R. Healy, ULI vice chair of district councils, to reevaluate the governance and operating structure of the domestic district council program and create a restructuring plan to harness the potential of the program’s extraordinary growth. The result: a new operating foundation with the aim to better position each district council for assisting in the long-term sustainability of its community.

Under the structure, each of the 51 district councils now has four key leadership positions: governance chair, district council chair, district council treasurer, and mission advancement chair. Each has three standing committees: an advisory board, a governance committee, and a management committee. Each is obligated to sign a succinct (two-page) operating agreement that binds the district council to further ULI’s mission in a way that best serves the individual needs of its market and its members.

Urban Land recently spoke with Healy about the organizational changes and the impact they will have on the program. “Last year, 15,000 ULI members attended a domestic district council event. The impact 15,000 people can make is massive—not just as individuals in specific markets, but together as a group,” Healy explained. “Through this process, we were striving to build on that interest, that enthusiasm, by providing sustainable leadership in ULI for the district councils.”

Why was this change seen as necessary?

This happened because of the incredible success of the district council program and a recognition by ULI’s leaders of the need to leverage that success. There was an understanding that the district councils hold the key to an extremely effective way for ULI to be impactful locally. The working group [which convened in March 2008 and disbanded in June 2010] looked at alternatives to maximize that impact. There were very few guardrails or guidelines; we simply took a fresh look at how to improve what was already an extremely successful part of ULI.

What led to the creation of the new district council leadership positions?

RiggsHealy_2_351It became clear to us that a new, more sustainable organizational structure was needed for continued growth in the district council program. It was a multistep process. First, we developed a simple, straightforward operating agreement between the district councils and ULI that is a business agreement, based not on metrics of performance but on the goal of advancing the ULI mission. This agreement [which all 51 district councils have signed] allows each district council to take the values of ULI and advance them in a way that is consistent with ULI principles while being relevant to their market. Second, we initiated the process of each district council developing a strategic plan. Third, we took an intense look at the operating relationship on a financial basis between the district councils and ULI. These were significant changes. But, the working group’s top priority was the definition of a leadership group for each district council.

What is the focus of these positions?

We settled on four critical volunteer positions that each district council could populate: the governance chair, the chair, the treasurer, and the mission advancement chair. One way to look at these positions is that with 51 domestic district councils, these positions give ULI 200 district council volunteer leaders the opportunity to meet together as a group and share ideas. Another way to view this is that there are now four portals through which the greater ULI organization can communicate. Still another view is that there are now four affinity groups that meet regularly to understand what their peers are doing. The end result is that each district council has a person in the same position communicating with others in the same position.

The single largest transformation was in the district council chair role. This position is now viewed as that of an enterprise leader of a small business. When a member is elected to district council chair, they are challenged with leading the creation of a five-year plan to improve land use planning, development, and design in their communities. The second group easily populated was that of the governance chairs, as they represent the outgoing district council chair. Providing a link in leadership, this position is responsible for succession planning and leadership identification. The treasurer group also jelled with the understanding that this position is not one of a sponsorship focus, but about ensuring financial feasibility. The mission chair group is still forming and, in my opinion, has the most exciting opportunity. The mission chair is the point person who understands the global goals and objectives of ULI and can determine how to implement them to reflect the specific needs of the district council. Very powerful.

What do these changes mean for the future of ULI?

This is the first step in taking what was an incredibly organic growth of a major component of the organization and giving it a foundation to achieve the goals of the next cycle. The work is continuing with a task force of both district council leadership and ULI staff to discuss how better to align the operations, the mission, and financial objectives of the district councils and ULI. At the district council chair meeting in Dallas this past February, the district council chairs named this process the business alignment model (BAM). ULI Foundation governor and former ULI Washington chairman David Mayhood and ULI chief financial officer Michael Terseck are heading this up, and I know it will produce the true operating leverage this new structure sought to ensure.

Any other comments to add?

RiggsHealy_3_250There are always more things to do. One goal yet to be accomplished is a sister city program with our international district councils. With this we can, through a horizontal communications portal system, really start to promote a true exchange of ideas and best practices between domestic district councils and international ones.

Another aspect that holds great promise is the regionalization, through content, of district council programs. We are seeing district councils join together in Florida, the Midwest, California, and Texas on issues that impact their regions. This bodes well for the future.

Of course, we must continue to relook at the delivery model and the financial model, but the BAM process is well on its way to doing that. And, we can never forget that the true leverage comes from our staff in each district council. They are remarkable in their dedication and talent. We must find ways to ensure their career growth.

Last thought?

You can measure success by more members, more panels, or more programs. My involvement in this process has led me to appreciate that the real measure is the impact a leader can make in his or her community. We have much to anticipate going forward. It is exciting to think about the role the district council program and the district council leadership has in guiding ULI’s future.