Friday, February 24, 2017

Community as Economic Engine

It’s endlessly fascinating to see what kaleidoscopic patterns can be generated by shining light on a single facet of intentional communities, and then slowly rotating the focus from one group to the next. As this issue of Communities drills down on cooperative economics, I want to look at what emerges when the lens is trained on how communities organize financially.

Intentional communities sort broadly into two kinds: those where members share income (roughly 10-12 percent of the North American field today), and those where they don’t (the vast majority).

In the case of the former, the community takes primary responsibility for the economic welfare of its members. In consequence, the community rolls up its sleeves and develops community-owned businesses, and takes advantage of collective purchasing power to leverage economies of scale to make ends meet. In addition to the day-to-day, this kind of community also provides for member vacations, health care, and retirement. It’s cradle to grave coverage. Members put everything they earn (though not necessarily everything they own) into the pot. In return, the group picks up the tab for all expenses—within whatever boundaries the community sets.

For non-income-sharing communities, however, the collective tends to leave the economics of member households untouched. This is a huge difference.

As someone who lived in an income-sharing community for fours decades (1974-2014) and was a delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities for two (1980-2001), I have deep familiarity with how the collective can partner with individual members to address economic imperatives. In addition, as FIC administrator for 28 years and as a group process consultant for three decades I have visited and worked with more 100 non-income-sharing communities and thus have first-hand knowledge of the economic realities in that milieu as well.

Both because most intentional communities don’t share income and because the potential there is less explored, the primary focus of this examination will be the economic relationship between the collective and the individual in non-income-sharing groups. I’m going to first describe what’s extant, and then attempt to make the case for shifting it to something else.

The Community Lens
For the community, it’s much simpler if its financial focus is narrowly defined: the group will manage the collective assets and liabilities (such as property taxes, infrastructure, and common facilities) and member household will manage themselves. Not only does this protect individual privacy (getting the right balance between group and individual can be tricky) but it’s less work. Members may do a fair bit of expense sharing and collective purchasing, but the group’s interest in member finances tends to be limited to whether the checks for HOA dues clear and members don’t default on their mortgages.
To be sure, if a member gets into financial trouble, the group may rally around them—either collectively or as neighbors—but it isn’t obliged to.

The Individual Household Lens
For the member this hands-off policy cuts two ways. On the one hand it means that information about their financial reality (beyond whether they qualify for a loan if one is needed to buy or build their unit) and their household budget is entirely their business, just as in the mainstream culture.

On the other hand it typically means foregoing one of the principal advantages of shared living: the active assistance from others in figuring things out.

On the expense side, there is considerable room for sharing expenses in non-income-sharing communities, and a good bit of this happens. Perhaps the community has an internal food-buying club or has a link with a nearby CSA (community supported agriculture). Maybe the community owns a single pickup truck or wood splitter that is shared among all members. The group may build a swimming pool, a workshop, or an exercise facility—all of which are likely to be larger and better equipped than what members would build on their own. 

But what about the income side? This part of the equation is largely unexplored.

My good friend, Terry O’Keefe, and I have been trying to bring a lantern into this cavernous, dark room. We think non-income-sharing communities are mostly missing an important opportunity to partner with their members, bringing community assets to bear. Our point is not that communities must do this, but that it is a possibility that is largely missed. Often communities are located in places where jobs are poor (which is the obverse of the cheap land coin). If prospective members had help solving their economic challenges it could make a substantial difference in community accessibility.

When Terry and I conducted a workshop bearing the same title as this article to a packed room at the 2015 national cohousing conference (in Durham NC), these questions bubbled up in the audience: 

1.  When does it make more sense for the community to own a business, and when does it make more sense for individual members to own it?

We suggest looking closely at two sub-questions:

a) What structure gives you the best chance of manifesting the management energy needed? Keep in mind that possessing a great commercial concept is not the same as possessing great management skills, and neither is the same as business savvy (though there is definitely overlap). Thus, people with sound business ideas often need help (whether they know it or not) with:
—Developing a viable business plan
—Securing start-up money
—Finding a qualified manager or management team
—Creating a marketing plan
—Identifying personnel needs (how many and with what skills)

b) To what extent are you open to fellow community members as a potential labor force? This question excites us a lot because of the potential for entrepreneurs (the ones who cook up business ideas) to partner with their non-entrepreneurial neighbors (who are looking to supplement their income but are reluctant to start a business). These two segments coexist in almost all groups and are often at odds with each other, because of the strong tendency for entrepreneurs to be risk tolerant while non-entrepreneurs are risk averse. Here they can make common cause.

2.  What advantages might communities businesses have in the marketplace?

—In communities of size there typically exists an amazing pool of skilled, motivated people available on site to help you with most aspects of business development. It’s an untapped gold mine.
—Building (or at least enhancing) community can be an explicit byproduct of doing the work. Given that your people value the community (and the connections) this significantly boosts job satisfaction and morale (which translates directly to better attention to detail, fewer mistakes, less absenteeism, more pride in the work, less turnover).
—If the business is owned by the community (and members are the workers) there will tend to be enhanced motivation and satisfaction from that fact alone. (There are any number of jobs I would gracefully do for my community that I would never do for wages.)
—Healthy communities tend to have superior skills at communicating and working constructively with conflict. This can make all the difference in terms of job satisfaction and can be readily parlayed into superior customer service.
—Communities tend to be more collaborative (and less hierarchic). To the extent that this obtains, problem solving becomes an all-skate activity (not just something management tackles). In addition to enhancing morale, it leads to more creative ideas and better problem solving.
—Community-based businesses can often be more fluid about part-time work, flex hours, day care on the job, costuming, and working at home.
—You’ll tend to get more people who will volunteer, because of the values you represent and how it helps the community.
—There will also an opportunity advantage among customers who value cooperation. Potential customers within your service area who value community will preferentially give you their business. While there will be limits to how much they will be willing to pay a premium for your product or service, they will at least prefer you when price and quality are comparable.
—Your labor pool itself may give you an advantage. For example, my long-time community (Sandhill Farm) produces sorghum syrup. While our neighbors could grow sorghum just as easily as we, they didn’t have the labor to do the work and couldn’t afford to hire it. Thus there was virtually no local competition for our product and we get the business from all who prefer to buy locally (which is a growing market share). Not stopping there we pressed this advantage by inviting friends to join us for the labor-intensive three-week harvest each fall. Our numbers temporarily swell to three times their normal size and it’s a madhouse harvest festival (a form of temporary community that we know how to manage). We’re no more efficient working this way, but all the incoming labor is volunteered—guest campesinos are compensated with wonderful food and camaraderie.
—To some extent people can substitute for capital and property. If people are a major resource, think about how to leverage that. Let me give another Sandhill example for how we applied this principle. Just like most of our northeast Missouri neighbors, we grew soybeans. If we sold them as a raw product (as our neighbors do) we wouldn’t have any advantage. However, we added value to our soybeans by making them into tempeh, and selling that instead. While it wasn’t a get rich scheme (we made about $10/hour on tempeh), there were several advantages to this approach:
• We could make tempeh year round and work when we wanted (when you’re dealing with raw agricultural products you must work when the weather is right, not when it fits your schedule).
• We set the price for local, organic tempeh. When you’re selling raw products, you mostly have to sell for what buyers will pay.
• We were selling a product that aligned well with our value for healthy living. Soy-based protein is easier on the land than meat-based protein and there’s no cholesterol.
• We could produce the same income from one acre of soybeans converted into tempeh that our neighbors could generate from selling 25 acres of raw soybeans. That allowed us make the income we needed farming far less land, which meant our operation needed far less capitalization.
—Often communities develop expertise in an area to meet their own needs, and that knowledge can have commercial application in ways that home-scale experiences may not.
For example, Twin Oaks (Louisa VA) was a well-established community of about 90 adults that grew a significant fraction of its own food in extensive community gardens. When neighboring Acorn (Mineral VA) acquired Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (an heirloom garden seed business) in 1999, it was an easy adjustment for Twin Oaks to become a major seed grower for Acorn, thereby boosting income for both communities.

—Communities frequently control land or have commonly held buildings that are underutilized. (Have you ever noticed how often the lights are out at the common house?)

3.  How tricky is it to navigate the dynamic where members are both peer/peer and employer/employee?

The hardest part is likely to occur when the employer gives the employee critical feedback about their performance as an employee—and these two are at the same time neighbors. This can be dicey, and a lot will depend on how well the culture of the community supports the expression of critical feedback and clean communication. If the community struggles to work through tensions among members then this does not bode well. Going the other way, where roles are clear and skills are sharp, it’s just another of life’s unexpected pleasures.

4.  How can we encourage non-income-sharing communities to develop their potential as an economic engine?

We suggest groups think about this in two ways: 

a) What can communities do to foster and support business development among entrepreneurial members? [See the replies to Questions 1a and 2 above.] By seeing the collective skills of community members as a pool, it’s quite likely that there is expertise within the pool that can cover most of the needs for business expertise—especially at the advising or consulting level (as opposed to the regular job level)—without going outside the group. Canvass the group and put that skill to work! Not only will you be strengthening the economics of the community, you’ll be strengthening relationships into the bargain.

Beyond that, the community may be a huge help with capitalization, perhaps through borrowing against capital reserves or by organizing a loan pool funded by members with deep pockets.

b) What can groups do to help new businesses create jobs for non-entrepreneurial members? We touched on this above, and think the community’s role in this may be crucial. Often small business owners are content to remain a one-person or single household operation. The owner may not be strong in social skills or is otherwise leery of the dynamics of hiring and firing neighbors. Thus, remaining a ma-and-pa outfit eliminates potential personnel headaches, and owners may not be that ambitious about growing the business. 

However, the savvy community will know that a majority of its members are non-entrepreneurial, some fraction of which may well be eager for local work that has a good values match. By getting involved at an early stage, the community can be in a position to offer the carrot of helping to identify business assistance in exchange for job creation—including the offer to troubleshoot personnel concerns, on an as-needed basis. There can be a lot of good in this. The principle is simple: the more people you have eagerly hunting in the clover field, the more you’re going to turn up specimens with four leaves.

To be clear, access to the community’s “Chamber of Commerce” would be strictly voluntary; no one would be required to use this group, or to heed its advice.

5.  To what extent is a focus on business development just buying into the (failed) paradigm that growth solves everything, and to what extent is it sensible to use traditional business tools to support alternative economies?

While I think there’s a lot that can be done to dial down demand (and live happily on less), it nonetheless makes sense to be smart about analyzing prospects for new business ideas with time tested traditional queries. For example:
—What's the market for your product or service?
—What's the competition?
—What do you do better than anyone else?
—What are you passionate about doing?
—Can you profitably produce or deliver your product or service at a price people are willing to pay?
—How is your business an expression of who you want to be in the world?
—How will you manifest the start-up capital you need to make a go of this business?
—How will you service debt and not go belly up?

6.  How do you handle the tension between the non-entrepreneur (who tends to be risk averse) and the entrepreneur (who tends to be risk tolerant)?

Let’s be real. This tension exists already, whether you have community businesses or not. Isn’t it a better strategy to learn to deal constructively with the full breadth of attitudes among your membership than to attempt to eliminate or shy away from opportunities for those differences to manifest?

[Terry and I will be reprising this workshop at the next national cohousing conference in Nashville TN, May 19-21, 2017]

• • •

Can communities afford to not explore their economic potential? I don’t think so. 

I’m not looking for Trump’s jawboning to bring back the manufacturing jobs that were lost to outsourcing. I’m not looking for governments to bail us out at all. I’m looking at what we can do for ourselves, working together in values-aligned cooperative groups—the same kind of entities that impressed Margaret Mead so much for their potential to effect world change.  

Sidebar #1: Redefining Terms

Ordinarily this term conjures up thoughts of bank balances and insurance policies. In community, however, or in close-knit neighborhoods, we can shift that to relationships—the people who will be there for you in time of need.
There are some nuances here, such as maintaining an intergenerational mix (so that the percentage of members needing help doesn’t get too high) or joining a community after you can no longer contribute (knocking out of balance a healthy sense of give and take), but these challenges can be solved with sufficient forethought.
Quality of Life
We mostly think in terms of amassing material goods or money (which can buy material goods). However, if we can shift from ownership of goods to access to goods, this is very liberating on one’s budget. In community, you learn quickly that everyone doesn’t need to own a lawnmower, a washing machine, or a table saw.
Yes, sharing comes with challenges—the tragedy of the commons, and mutuality of need come to mind—yet think of all the dollars you don’t have to earn if you share items that you only need occasionally.
This can be translated into working fewer hours, or changing to a job you enjoy more but pays less.
Sustainable Economics
In the mainstream culture we rely on GNP (gross national product) as the principal indicator of economic health. That’s a measure of throughput, with no distinction between $1 million spent on building wind turbines or $1 million spent on cleaning up an oil spill (or $1 million in legal fees to defend the company that caused the oil spill)—they are considered equivalent events in terms of GNP.
But what if we valued conservation of resources instead? Rather than measuring how many trees were sold for lumber, we’d focus on how many trees are still standing that could be cut into lumber. Since we live in a world of finite resources, maybe it would make better sense to focus on what we have available (rather than how fast we’re exchanging it). We could peg our sense of health to how many inches of topsoil we had at the end of the year, rather than on the dollar value of the potatoes we grew in that topsoil last year.
Economist Herman Daly laid out a blueprint for this different approach in his seminal work, Steady-State Economics (1977). We could focus on a system of exchanging goods and services that can be continued indefinitely into the future with no one getting hurt. We could emphasize helping people find work they love and are good at.
We could redefine “work” as something that purposefully blurs the traditional distinctions between work and play—because you enjoy both.
To make a shift of this kind requires the fish to sense the water they’re swimming in and to decide to try something else. It’s questioning fundamental assumptions about what kind of activity or condition best measures the health of an economy—by which I mean a system’s capacity to support people getting what they need and want for a decent life.
It’s hard, and perhaps a bit scary, but it can be done.

Sidebar #2: Challenges Peculiar to Community-based Businesses
As promotional as I am about community businesses, there are pitfalls that it behooves groups to become familiar with up front:
1. You will need to devote time and resources to training people in communication and cooperative problem solving. While people will be attracted to what you intend and what you have created, that does not mean they will already possess the skills to plug in well. In fact, they most likely won’t (or will have those skills only partially mastered).
Because intentional communities purposefully effect culture change, any business embedded in an intentional community will be operating in a different culture. In recognition of that tautology you would be wise to anticipate the need to build capacity as a precondition to reaping the benefits. (While you might reasonably project a flywheel effect that will help carry you along with its positive momentum once you have things well under way, there will be a lot of effort in the beginning getting things pointed in the right direction.)
2. It is a complication to embrace the concept that relationship building is part of your work. Yes, it comes with the advantages enumerated in the main article, yet it won’t all be cake and balloons. There will be times when you’re ready to focus on a task and some of your fellow workers will insist on working through interpersonal tensions instead. In mainstream workplaces, there are typically strict limitations on what, how, and when you can expect tensions to be addressed (if at all); in a community-based business you’re going to have to budget time to do this work way beyond the industry average (and it won’t come in predictable doses; it’ll be episodic, irregular, and occasionally intense).
3. Collaborative decision-making can take considerably longer than typical management styles in the corporate world. While you can make an excellent case for why collaborative styles will produce better decisions in general, there needs to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of how to delegate effectively and under what conditions it makes sense to use a more streamlined decision-making process (for example, to respond effectively to time-sensitive conditions and information). Doing this in a sloppy way is highly expensive (in terms of hurt feelings, a sense among workers of betrayal or hypocrisy, and frustration among management). It’s serious work developing an effective decision-making style for collaborative groups, and you can get creamed if you don’t anticipate this.
4. It can be tough navigating the dynamic where two members are in a manager/employee role in the community business, while at the same time relating as peers in community meetings. There are different expectations in those roles and it can get confusing if people have trouble changing hats when shifting from business conversations to community conversations.

Sidebar #3: Profile of Members Seeking Part-Time Employment
Among members of non-income-sharing communities looking for employment, here are the preferences I have been able to distill from direct observation and discussion:
—Options for part-time work
—Flexible hours
—May need help with childcare, or openness to having young kids at the work site
—Strong match between work values and personal values (no prostitution)
—Low/no commuting
—Casual dress permitted (minimal wardrobe expenses)
—Social skills highly valued
—Limited desire/willingness to manage
—Wages need to be decent, but not exorbitant

Sidebar #4: Defining Living Wage
How much income is needed to live decently? Answers vary widely, based on individual circumstances. Essentially, we’re talking about covering basics (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health), plus some for education, travel, entertainment, and savings. Someone living in the city will have a different bottom line than for someone living in a rural county without a stoplight (as I did for 40 years). Someone living in an income-sharing group house will have a very different budget than someone living in a single family home.
The amount of money you equate with a living wage will be directly tied to the decisions you make about the amount of independence you seek and the degree you feel you need to own things (rather than share them), and these choices will tend to have a significantly greater impact on your money needs than the local real estate market.
Getting the Life You Want on Less Money
Probably the biggest two items on your expense list where you have immediate potential for drastically reducing your living costs are in housing and transportation, with food a distant third. The more you share, the less money you need to have the standard of living you seek. It’s that simple (though, to be sure, the practice of sharing is not always simple—which is why there’s a social dimension to sustainability).
Another factor is the extent to which you equate your worth with your wage (or your bank account). The mainstream culture has gone to considerable lengths to condition people to make this link, and it can take serious effort to unlearn it. (The good news is that it’s possible.)
Making Work Work for You
The way through this issue is to expand the list of things you value when assessing what you get from your work. While money is a factor, you can also value:
—Relationships (both with colleagues and with clients)
—Education (what you learn while delivering the job, either professionally or about yourself)
—Opportunity to serve
—Working conditions (pleasure derived from the environment in which you work)
—Access to resources (use of company tools and expertise for personal purposes)
—Contacts (which may lead to more rewarding jobs in the future)
—Ancillary social benefits (the opportunity to visit friends and relatives living near or en route to where you’re delivering work—this is a big one for me, because I travel a lot as a process consultant)
The point is that it’s good to have a complex equation when assessing the value you get from work, as it gives you the greatest leverage for practicing the permaculture principle of “stacking functions.” That is, your life will tend to work better if you can get work to satisfy multiple functions (rather than just generating the money with which to afford the myriad things you really want to do).
The Problems of Separating Love & Money
While mostly people are looking for more money from their work than they’re getting now, there can also be a challenge from the other direction: where people insist on not getting paid (or paid decently) for work they love. The idea here is that the other side of the people-not-having-work-they-love coin is people not wanting to mess up what they love by associating money with it.
It works like this. Having taken deeply into their heart the shibboleth that money is the root of all evil they don’t want to contaminate activities they love with the taint of commercialism.  This can play out in a couple of versions.
One is the artist (and everyone who practices something they love can be styled an “artist”—regardless of the value others place on that person’s work) who chooses to not sell what they produce (or accept commissions to create it), for fear that market preferences will influence (either subtly or grossly) their artistic choices and they prefer a non-economic purity in their practice.
Another is that some people working in the social change field will prefer to volunteer or accept low wages in exchange for credibility or even power. The dynamic is that there tends to be a deep suspicion about the motives of people who ask for high wages (note that “high” in this context can simply mean a living wage), and some would prefer to demonstrate their depth of conviction by accepting little or no compensation, hoping (perhaps subconsciously) to trade their poverty for influence.
While there are all kinds of flaws in this logic (what does it say about a model of a sustainable world if it depends on the people working to create it not being sustainably compensated for their efforts?), this “pride of poverty” phenomenon is a powerful dynamic undercutting the effectiveness of much social change work today. (For an excellent and poignant story about this, read pages 37-40 of Passion as Big as a Planet by Ma’ikwe Ludwig.)

Sidebar #5: Laird’s Economic Journey
In the interest of completeness and transparency, I want to share my personal odyssey in relationship with money. While everyone’s path is unique, and my experience cannot be a blueprint for anyone else, I think personal stories ground the issues and can occasionally provide inspiration.
I grew up in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, and have an extreme amount of privilege in the mainstream culture. My father was financially successful and I was raised to be so myself. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt about whether I could make lots of money if I set my sights on that goal.
I did not grow up rich, but comfortably middle class. The most important thing I got out of my upbringing was a strong sense of self-confidence. As I understand it today, this is the result of: a) my privilege; b) feeling secure in my parents’ love; and c) my never having experienced any serious deprivation growing up (my basic needs were always met). So the first piece to understand is that I had serious advantages.
While my father had plenty of money, and seemed to enjoy making it, it was also clear that he wasn’t happy. In fact, I came to understand by the time I went to college that he was profoundly lonely. It was a wake-up call of serious proportions to see my father—who was clearly a success as measured by societal standards—not happy. He was, I understand now, living well beyond the "Apex of Fulfillment," and I wanted no part of that experience. So my second piece was that I understood early on the limitations of what money can buy.
I went to college during the years 1967-71: the height of Vietman protests. It was a period of unprecedented unrest on campus and I was smack in the middle of it. I burst out my conservative cocoon and started questioning damn near everything. I loved the intensity of the inquiry and what I now see with hindsight were my first tastes of community—dormitory living with peers. These were exciting times, and it was in that context that the next piece emerged: I was drawn to social change work (and I knew that I was going to be a builder-upper rather than a tearer-downer: I had seen both roles showcased in those years of protest, and it was quickly apparent to me that I enjoyed putting together solutions more than I relished ripping the scales from others’ eyes).
Coming out of college, I knew I was supposed to get a job (in the same way that I knew that I was supposed to go to college after high school). Already oriented toward wanting to make a difference, it seemed a good idea to explore public service, and for two years I worked for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, DC as a junior bureaucrat. As it turned out, it was the only regular 9-5, M-F job I ever had. I worked for the then-magnificent salary of $7,000/year, and saved money. (The two main components of this were shared housing and not owning a vehicle; it’s incredible how far you can stretch a paycheck when you get control of housing and transportation, and don’t eat out every night.)
While it didn’t take me long to grok that this would not be my most productive environment (too much bullshit, not enough action), it was a valuable experience. It was, for example, highly instructive to experience being the lowest paid person in my division (of 12 professionals and seven secretaries), and yet I was the only one not complaining of a shortage of disposable income. People in that office spent to the limit of their income (or beyond). Sure, they had nicer houses and nicer clothes, yet they didn’t seem happier. This reinforced my inclination to not enter the consumer rat race. What was the point?
I also realized that I had lost that excitement and stimulation of college days. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Instead of focusing first on career possibilities and rebuilding a network of relationships in whatever job came along, maybe I should have done it the other way around: focus first on the people and let the job follow. In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today. It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment. It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community, and it changed my life. “Community” was the label I was searching for to describe what was precious to me about my college experience. So now I had another important piece: people first; money second.
By August I had “retired” from public service and began serious conversations with friends from college days about starting our own community, to recreate that special environment. By the following spring, we had founded Sandhill Farm: four people willing to try to make that happen.
Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income-sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled. The community still operates that way today.
The four of us were able to buy the land and expand the housing to meet our needs with cash (about $20,000). A significant fraction of that was saved from my two years in DC. I was 24 years old and had just bought land (with others) in northeast Missouri. I had no job (or even an inkling of how we were going to make the finances work), but we also had no debt.
The Community Years
From this point on, I began seriously working on developing a viable economic model that was quite different from any I had known before. Here are the components of what I was able to accomplish:
—Drastically reduced my need for money to supply basic needs, by living in a homesteading community that shared income.
—Worked consciously to expand the pool of things that give me high satisfaction (essentially this entailed cultivating curiosity).
—Insisted that the highest possible fraction of what I do was things I loved doing.
—Defined work broadly (valuing both domestic and income-producing activities as “work”).
—Blurred the line between work and play.
—Worked only when I wanted to (though I wanted to a lot).
—Brought my full passion into everything I did.
—Defined success as loving the process, not the number of projects completed.
To the extent I’ve succeeded at this, I don’t track how much I work, and work doesn’t tire me. (clients feel this from me—even if they don’t know where it comes from—and it positively affects their experience with me, making it all the more likely they’ll want to work with me again. It’s a tremendous positive feedback loop.)
By having lots of things that attract me, I have a wide variety of work. Because I also have considerable control of my time, this affords me an important degree of flexibility. Whenever I get tired of one thing (or seem to have lost my creative edge), I simply lay it down and do something completely different. By this practice I am able to maintain an unusually high degree of enthusiasm for what I do, and rarely get run down.
Pricing Myself
I do a lot of things that make money. Yet money doesn’t drive me. By having a low need for cash (by American standards) it gives me considerable leverage in the marketplace. As a process consultant (my most remunerative activity), I know that my services are valuable (I price myself as worth $1500/day, plus expenses). Whenever prospective clients ask what I charge, I give them that figure, and in the same breath tell them that I don’t want money to get in the way of the work and that I’ll agree to do the job (assuming I’m interested in it) for what they can afford. That is, I tell them that I’ll say “yes” to whatever amount of money they put on the table, without quibbling. The only requirement is that they have a conversation (without me present) about what they can afford. What I don’t do is offer discounts up front. I insist they have the conversation about what the work is worth. And then I trust their answer.
In consequence, I get paid all over the map. Sometimes I work for a pittance, or even pro bono. In the end though, taken as a whole, I get paid plenty and I am able to ignore the paycheck when doing the work.
One last piece. I’ve derived considerable satisfaction from making jobs up (rather than out-competing those already in the field). That is, on multiple occasions I’ve cooked up an idea for a job that hasn’t existed previously—something that really excited me. I’ve talked people into supporting me as a volunteer long enough to demonstrate that job’s worth, and then gotten the job funded. After a while, my interests invariably evolve, I find someone to replace me, and I create a new job. I’ve done this half a dozen times.
After firmly establishing myself in the field of intentional communities as a process consultant, I am poised to leave that to others and focus instead on bringing the lessons and tools of cooperative dynamics into the wider culture—among neighborhood associations, schools, churches, and the workplace, where the commitment to community and cooperation is softer, yet the numbers yearning for something better are exponentially higher.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Techno Boosting in Duluth

Yesterday I transferred data from my old laptop ('12 model) to a spiffy new one (a refurbished late model MacBook). Whew.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday I'm outbound for a 28-day (five-gig) road trip and I had been anxious to get the migration completed before departure. I slept well last night with that technological accomplishment safely in my rear view mirror.
I figure I swapped out just in time: my old laptop was getting creaky. Not only was I rubbing the more popular letters off my keyboard (e, r, t, a, s, d), but I was needing increasing fingertip pressure to register my keystrokes (which meant a lot of tedious backtracking to correct misses). It's a joy to return to normal typing, where regular light pressure is effective. 
I had a moment of panic this morning when I tried working in Word for the first time on the new machine and it blithely informed me that I had read-only privileges until I registered my copy of Microsoft Office. What! While I had no idea why my registration didn't migrate to the new machine along with my files, now I had to recall where in Sam Hill I'd stored the box that the program came in. Amazingly, it was in the first place I looked (talk about a miracle): the back of the lap drawer of my desk. It contained a copy of the 25-digit key I needed to fully enable my programs. Saved!

Still, all is not beer and skittles. When my Mac was infested with a virus last June the local techie who got rid of it also, inadvertently, dumped all my iCal data and emails dated earlier than February 2015, and I was not able to restore either via my external hard drive back-up. Ouch! Barring some moon-from-the-bottom-of-the-sea recovery, I am in the process of reconciling with the increasing likelihood that I have permanently lost access to all of my professional reports and correspondence from 2014 and before. Ugh. (I'm lucky that all my blog entries are stored online.)

Still, I soldier on. On the plus side, my new laptop is tiny, yet powerful—it weighs just under a kilo, is small enough that it doesn't have an internal fan, and can run forever on battery power. It weighs about the same as a tablet, yet features a larger screen, with crisp, pro-retina pixelation.

I figure getting a new laptop is lot like my sister getting a new hip. It's awkward at first, but after you work the kinks out, you wonder why you waited so long to get it done.

Bring on that road trip!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How I Place Myself as a Professional Facilitator

The other morning I lay in bed wondering how I'd describe myself as a process professional. In what ways am I distinctive? Here's my answer.

I. My Strengths as a Professional
There are aspects of what I bring to the table where I believe I stand out, independent of what I know about group dynamics.

Excepting where I'm giving a workshop or an a la carte training (in which case there will be handouts), I commit to delivering a written report within two weeks. While the report basically recapitulates what happened live and what I said when I was in the room, I discovered early in my career that clients typically absorb only about 20% of what happens, so the written report gives them a second bite of the apple that they can refer to in their leisure. I have high standards for my reports.

Some small, but significant portion of the time there are tensions in the client group that relate to a key player feeling isolated or misunderstood as a founder of the group. It is unquestionably a special thing being a founder, and it helps me bridge to those folks that I also have been a founder—of an intentional community, of a national profit, of a community business, of a consulting career.

—Large RAM
For reasons that are unknown to me, I can hold an unusually large number of balls in the air without dropping them. This is an enormously useful skill: taking in a large volume of information and being able to call upon it at will.

—Fast Thinker
There is considerable range in how quickly people process information and are able to separate signal from noise. While I'm not a prodigy, I operate at the quick end of that spectrum, which means I'm at the head of the pack when it comes to figuring out where we are and where we want to go.

Some of the group issues I'm asked to facilitate involve parenting. On those occasions it helps tremendously that I have raised two kids in community—not because there is one right way to do it, but because I have personal familiarity with the range of what to expect (and non-parents seldom have street cred with parents).

—Cancer Survivor
This is a new label for me, and I'm not sure yet how it will play out. But if I've learned anything about group dynamics, all experiences come into play at one point or another. I've been a survivor for only a year, yet there have been moments in the past when I was working with individuals who were approaching mortality and it was a challenge to bridge to what they were going through. Now I'm better equipped. ("Did you almost die? So did I.")

II. My Flavor as a Professional  
There are a number of ways that I do things that are distinctive. In some circumstances they are an advantage… other times not so much.

As someone who has lived most of his adult life in an income-sharing community, I've never needed a lot of income in order to make ends meet. That's given me flexibility when it comes to what I charge for my time, which I use to bridge between my services being accessible to clients (affordable) and my work being aligned with my values (if I'm not being asked to build a more cooperative world I'm not interested in the work). On the one hand, I do not want money to stand in the way of helping groups in need; on the other I want this skill to be taken seriously and compensated fairly—both for myself and for the profession.

Over the course of 30 years in the field I've gradually worked myself up the ladder to where I rate my services as worth $1500/day, plus expenses (travel, room, and board). While this may be a bargain in the corporate context, my clients are almost wholly in the nonprofit sector and that's high enough. (If you think that's pricey, consider what lawyers and architects charge: my skill set is far rarer and my work is typically more pivotal to a community's success.)

While I don't offer discounts up front, and I insist that clients discuss among themselves what they can afford and the value of my work (a conversation I don't need to be part of), I tell them I will accept without question whatever amount of money they put on the table—so long as my expenses are covered (my inviolable line is that I never lose money working for others). Sometimes I get full boat; sometimes I work pro bono. On average though, I come out fine.

This is handled differently by some of my peers. Some simply suppress their prices as a nod to affordability (I have a dear friend who refers to this strategy as the pride of poverty movement, where social change workers compete to see who can work for the least). Others embrace the gift economy where no prices are set and groups pay what they think right.

I've come to prefer my approach for four reasons:
a) I've seen how much clients anguish over price; not giving them a number to work from is hard on folks. They want to be fair, yet they don't want to be foolish. If I give them no frame of reference it can be highly uncomfortable.

b) I am a market maker in the arcane field of cooperative group process consulting and I think strategically about those who will follow me. This is a field that barely existed when I first hung out a shingle in 1987. Though my income-sharing lifestyle means I don't need as much, there are plenty of good facilitators who live in single family urban dwellings and they need to make a living, too. By gradually doing what I can to raise the water level, all boats rise.

c) While I wish it weren't so, people pay more attention when they pay more money. And while money isn't much of a motivator for me, I purely hate it when clients don't pay attention. Thus, it helps to establish a healthy bench mark.

d) Since adopting this approach I've never had a client complain about price.

Sad though it is, not everyone likes me, or the way I work. I am very direct, and that can be more octane than some can handle. While I also try to be sensitive and compassionate, I am typically working complex dynamics under severe time constraints. As I do not get hired to play it safe (I get hired to be effective) it often means going into the lion's den. Inevitably, a certain fraction of the time (maybe 3%) what I attempt does not go well (perhaps I didn't have a full enough picture; perhaps my analysis was faulty, perhaps my technique was poor, perhaps the people I most needed to reach had their drawbridge up and there was no way to cross the moat). Most push back comes from people who are embedded in a stuck dynamic and are simply unwilling to have the light shined on their part. For them I am the disrespectful, outside agitator and there is no way I will ever be invited back—never mind that 97% thought what I attempted was brilliant, brave, or at least constructive. In my line of work if you don't hit a home run in your first couple at bats, you'll be on the trading block by morning. (Professional firefighting is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned.)

—Quality Control
Most groups have never seen anyone do what I can do and thus are hard pressed when it comes to evaluating whether it's a good value to lay out major resources (both time and money) to hire me. As I've come to appreciate that phenomenon, it has underlined the standard advice I give groups considering professional help: check references.

This field is so young and so thin that there are no standards for accreditation, and I have been so busy doing the work (and the rest of my life) that I have not gotten around much to seeing my peers in action—so I want no part of passing judgment on others. I'd rather let the marketplace handle that. At the same time, I think this work is too important for amateur hour. So it puts me in a tricky position: I want groups to get assistance yet am concerned that more people are putting themselves forward as professionals than who know what they're doing.

(What I can do, upon request, is offer a list of my coaching tree, professional-grade students of mine whose quality of work I can vouch for.)

My approach is overwhelmingly based on what works in the trenches—in real meetings. That's in contrast with work that's grounded in exposure to the literature, or from absorbing instruction from others. In my case the exceptions are:

o  Arnie Mindell's Sitting in the Fire, which does a terrific job of laying out the non-rational aspects of group dynamics, and the concepts of rank and privilege.

o  Caroline Estes, a lifelong Quaker who taught me to understand consensus deeply.

o  Mildred Gordon, who taught me the potential of interweaving the emotional and the rational.

Otherwise my thinking and my practice have been distilled from hundreds and hundreds of meetings, including 200+ professional gigs over a span of three decades.

Taken all together, I have an enormous pattern library to draw on (to the point where it's hard to show me something I haven't seen before). Thus, when you hire me you get a library card.

—Auditory Learner
It happens that my primary intake channel is through my ears. While I've worked hard to be competent with both visuals and kinesthetics, my main medium of exchange matches well with the way meetings are conducted: by voice.

I write a lot. It got to the point a few years ago (while I was still the FIC administrator) that I was authoring something heavy duty—an article, a report, a major proposal, or a blog entry—every day. Never mind the three hours I devote to treading water with email every time the sun comes up.

At this stage in my life I've generated:
   over 1000 blog posts
   over 50 articles in Communities magazine
   over 100 reports to clients

The vast majority of this output has been focused on one aspect or another of cooperative group dynamics. When people ask if I'm going to write a book, I tell them, "I've already written several. They just aren't organized yet."

As a writer, I strive to be concise, cohesive, comprehensive, and colloquial. I rely heavily on metaphors (and alliteration).

—Facilitation Teacher
As I've gotten older, and therefore closer to the end of my career, I've become increasingly focused on passing along what I've learned. In addition to writing (see above) I've became much more active as a teacher. 

In 2003 I launched a two-year intensive training program for people who want to learn high-end facilitation. I've now delivered this program in its entirety eight times with three other courses currently under way (in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina). Since recovering from cancer, I've been working to assemble the materials for a masters course, which I hope to offer in the next year or two. 

To the extent possible, I prefer to teach from live dynamics (where the lessons emerge from the what's in the room rather than from a script or a lesson plan). For the two years I'm together with students, I offer myself as a mentor—both in class and out. After completing the course, if the student is interested in going further and shows sufficient talent, I offer to let them accompany me on jobs as an apprentice, offering both advanced guidance (1:1 time with the teacher) and valuable exposure as a wannabe professional. Though I didn't have that kind of help when I broke into the field (why would you hire someone you'd never heard of and who has no track record?) now I have a chance to turn it around. And paying it forward is good juju.

—Major Philosophical Positions 
Over the course of my career my thinking about group dynamics has continuously evolved (in fact, it still is). And, as you'd expect, my peers have a variety of styles, different aspects they emphasize, and unique ways they approach their work. Here is an enumeration of ways in which I believe I am distinctive as a professional facilitator, and ways in which hold a particular orientation to cooperative culture.

o  I emphasize working with the whole person. That means the emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and spiritual; not just the rational (which is overwhelmingly the only way that most secular groups function in North America—though I suspect this is more by default than the consequence of conscious choice).

o  A professional facilitator needs to be able to work with content as proficiently as with energy. Doing one well is not enough. I cut my meeting teeth in an income-sharing intentional community with no designated leader. As far as I'm concerned that's the toughest nut there is (by which I mean the dynamics there are the most complex and intertwined). It's my view that if you can function well in that setting you can do it anywhere.

o  I've come to the position that you cannot fully bloom as a facilitator without developing and trusting your intuition; your thinking is not enough. Facilitation is more an art than a craft.

o  There is a bewildering array of tools available these days to assist with meetings—with bright, shiny new ones being invented and touted all the time. While I think that robust experimentation with new tools is good, and it's fine to add to your toolkit anything that works well for you, I have two words of caution:

a) You don't need a large tool bag to be a great facilitator; you just need a basic set of tools (formats and the like) that you know when to employ and how to use well. The heavy lifting in facilitation does not come from clever structure; it comes from a deep understanding of where people are at, what they need, and how to reach them.

b)  Beware of practitioners who are in love with a single tool, for as sure as they love their hammer, everything will start looking like a nail and the world is far more diverse than that.

o  The bottom line for facilitation is consistently delivering meetings that people want to come to because problems are solved and relationships are built and strengthened. It shouldn't be just one or the other. When exciting things are consistently happening no one wants to miss the bus.

o  Many groups that are avowedly committed to cooperative principles have not digested the foundational lesson that individuals raised in Western culture have been deeply conditioned to be competitive and you cannot expect cooperative behavior out of those people (which is just about all of us) when they encounter disagreement and the stakes are high. Competitive behaviors can be unlearned (thank god) but that requires personal work to achieve and you are not going to like the results if well-intentioned people attempt to effect cooperative culture while opting out of the personal work. 

o  Facilitation is a lot like midwifery. The point in a group's life cycle where skilled facilitation is most crucial is when the group is in its infancy and still trying to make the transition to cooperative culture. Good facilitators are able to remind the group of its good intentions and redirect inadvertent slides back into the abyss of competitive squabbling. Without good facilitation young groups often founder, get discouraged, and lose heart. As groups become more mature and cooperative behaviors become more ingrained, the need for strong facilitation lessens. Over time the group will develop a strong gyroscope and self correct without facilitator intervention.

o  As a social change agent, when I contemplate how badly we need a viable alternative to competitive dynamics (is anyone inspired by the model Trump is offering?), I figure I can't train good facilitators fast enough—the need is that urgent. So that's mainly what I do (along with articulating the theory). I've retired from everything else (though I still do some for-hire facilitation, both because it keeps me on my toes and it helps recruit students), but I'll die with an intriguing idea for my next blog ready to be fleshed out.

o  Though living in intentional community will never be that popular a lifestyle choice (it's too radical), there is a broad-based hunger for a greater sense of community in one's life—by which I mean more connection, civility, safety, control of one's time, and security. Intentional communities are pioneers in developing cooperative culture and they are important to the wider culture because our society is on the cusp of desperately needing to know how to get along better with one another, and how to equitably share a diminishing supply of resources without sacrificing quality of life.

My Strengths in Group Dynamics
Here are the aspects of cooperative group dynamics where I have developed my strongest reputation; it's what I'm best known for.

I define this as the condition where there are at least two viewpoints and at least one person in non-trivial distress. Conflict naturally occurs when groups deal with real issues and people are paying attention; the question is not so much how frequently conflict occurs, but how constructively you work with it. Most groups are scared to death of conflict and have nothing in place for engaging with it. It's jungle ball and they just hope to survive it.

I've thought a lot about the dynamics of emotional distress and I've learned that I don't freeze or get overloaded circuits in the presence of distress in others. As a consequence I'm frequently hired to help groups work through a conflict, to set up group agreements for self-managing conflict, or to train their personnel in conflict skills. It's also a key component of my two-year facilitation training.

The object of the training is not so much to reduce the incidence of conflict as it is to help groups not freak out when one or more of their members freak out. If we can stop the chain reaction there will be much less collateral damage and we'll be able to address derailments more expeditiously.

Today, if a group finds itself in the midst of a raging five-alarm fire, I'm one of a short list of people who gets called to put the fire out. 

By way of framing, my approach to conflict is unique to me. While I have familiarity with NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and there is common ground between how I approach conflict and the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg, we developed our thinking independently and I have some nuances that I prefer.

There is also a more recent entrant in the field of conflict work: Restorative Circles, whose main articulator is Dominic Barter. I have been introduced to this approach by a professional and have experienced it as a participant three times. While I have peers who are quite drawn to it, I was not that impressed (what I saw was too slow to get to the point, the conversation was not that productively focused on the dynamics between antagonists, the facilitation was too passive, and major issues went untouched). That said, this is an evolving body of work and worth keeping an eye on.

—Interweaving Energy and Content
While many systems for working with groups do not incorporate conflict as part of the theory (for example, sociocracy) I believe there is a growing understanding among process professionals that groups must address conflict in order to offer a coherent system (that is, you can't just duck it or pretend that sound structure and practice will eliminate its occurrence). 

I have worked extensively on what happens in plenaries (meetings of the whole) and the boundary between conflict and regular group business. Under what circumstances should you suspend regular business to attend to conflict, and when (and how) do you return to regular business after you have paused to address conflict? I am not aware of anyone who has more comprehensive thinking about managing this edge with sensitivity and effectiveness.

Years ago I had just arrived on site for work with a first-time client when a long-term group member approached me with a question: "I hear you're fearless. Is that right?" Because no one had ever asked me that before and I had never described myself that way, I paused. Then I smiled, looked her right in the eye, and replied, "That's right."

As someone who has been hired to put the fire out, I am not going to stand by while the building goes up. I will give it my best shot every time and I invariably approach work with the attitude that I can effectively cope with whatever comes along—even though that's patently not true. (Thus, there are embarrassing moments when I am the poster child for Alexander Pope's famous line "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.") 

While I may fail for jumbled thinking, or for poor technique; I will never fail for being faint of heart. 

—Secular Consensus
There was important work done in the '70s by the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society to adapt the 300-year-old meeting practices of the Religious Society of Friends (which Quakers styled a "sense of the meeting," and was a distinctive and integral feature of how they worshipped) to secular political actions groups—anti-nuclear protest groups in particular.

From that beachhead, consensus blossomed to become the most common way that cooperative groups attempt to make decisions. The intentional community that I helped form in 1974 (Sandhill Farm) blithely adopted consensus right at the start and never looked back. However, that did not mean we knew what we were doing, and there were all manner of growing pains encountered on the road to maturity.

By the time I tentatively ventured into the nascent field of cooperative group consulting in 1987, I had become something of an expert on secular consensus, and there has been a steady call for advice in that capacity right that continues to this day (next week I'll be conducting an introductory consensus training for a forming group in New England for the third time—bringing all their latest members up to speed).

To be sure, my experience in working with consensus has been limited to groups with 100 members or fewer, yet it remains my hands-down favorite choice for how smaller groups can make decisions and organize themselves. While I have ideas about how some version of representative consensus might work well for groups with more than 100 members, I haven't had much chance to test drive my thinking.

Though my advocacy for consensus is solid, it comes with a caveat: to get good results requires an understanding of the personal work needed to unlearn competitive conditioning, and a commitment to training. The skills needed to do consensus elegantly are eminently learnable, yet purposeful effort is required. Don't adopt consensus unless you're willing to put in the effort.

—Depth of Familiarity with the Topic
Finally, I want to reflect on a natural progression that people go through if they persist in applying time and thought to their field. Starting as a professional practitioner, I gradually started teaching how to be a practitioner, which led to my thinking about and articulating why we facilitators do things the way we do. 

Today I am an active theoretician about cooperative group dynamics, which makes me much more valuable than "just" a practitioner. This translates to my being able to accurately place a specific experience in the context of trends, quickly sorting breakthrough from novelty, and extracting the essence of a new thing. It also leads to "seeing around the curve," anticipating what's coming and whether that's a good thing or something to be alarmed about.

• • •
Thus, the danger of Trump is not so much that he's emotionally immature (though, to be fair, if he launches a nuclear attack in a fit of pique, it will render moot a lot more than this paragraph) or anti-progressive in his policies. The real danger is that those of us who know better will be sucked into the vortex of his divisive us/them politics. The danger is that we will start to see Trump and his gleeful de-constructors as less than human. If we succumb to that temptation, it will eviscerate cooperative culture and close out the possibility of a future where we learn to share equitably and are able to get off the materialistic merry-go-round. It is up to us who have done the work to develop the long view, to keep the candles lit in the dark.

I cannot see the future, but I'm far enough down the road to see the trends, and the broad steps we must take to keep alive the possibility of a future worth having. I know how to keep my eyes on the prize and not be deflected by the drama of Trump's everyday dysfunction.