Overwhelmingly, intentional communities can think up governance structures faster than they can staff them. It's a problem.
In my experience, communities generally do a fair job of puzzling out a decent way to set up committees (or teams) to oversee the major aspects of living together—for example, outdoor maintenance, common house management, common meals, budget and finance, celebrations, conflicts resolution, etc.
To be sure, there's a fair amount of variety and personal flair in how each group puts it together, and there's wonderful creativity in the names bestowed on some the committees. (For example, at newly built Durham Central Park, a cohousing group in North Carolina, their participation committee is called Workin' IT—or WIT, as in what they need about them when trying to figure out a good way to get everyone slotted into community tasks.) In the spirit of being WITty, I want to shine the spotlight today on the challenge of filling committee slots in intentional communities, which are filled on a volunteer basis (though in some groups there's a clear expectation that everyone serve somewhere).
In my experience (I've worked with perhaps 100 groups in my 27 years as a process consultant) it's essentially universal that communities have more committee slots than people who are actively and competently filling them. There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Here are five:
o The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Often people sign up for committees with good intentions, but piling more food on an over-full plate does not necessarily mean you can eat it all. Perhaps people are agreeing to serve on a committee simply to be agreeable, and have no intention of actually doing the work. In any event, it's relatively common for communities to report that some non-trivial fraction of the people who have accepted committee assignments are there in name only.
o Unaddressed tension arising from uneven participation
Sometimes what starts out well doesn't continue that way. Good intentions often devolve into some members being perceived as not carrying their weight (so-called Slackers), while others (perhaps) are doing more than is asked of them yet complaining of their workload and expect special rights by virtue of their contributions (so-called Martyrs). While it's fairly common that imbalances will occur and that these will lead to tensions, the real question is whether the group has developed a way to talk about the tensions and work through them (Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. Think of it like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for an article of mine devoted to the Martyrs & Slackers dynamic and how to address it.)
o Timidity in responding to interpersonal tensions
This goes well beyond Martyrs & Slackers stuff, to include garden variety interpersonal tensions, style clashes, and personalities that don't mix well, resulting in: a) individuals who attempt to serve on committees together and rue the results; or b) in those so who have gotten off to such a poor start with another member that they don't even care to try to serve with that person on the same committee.
The larger issue is whether the group offers sufficiently skillful support for members struggling to resolve interpersonal tensions, and whether the members have the courage and humility to ask for help.
o Weak delegation of authority
If committees are only set up to do grunt work for the plenary, and are given no authority to act without plenary approval, serving on committees is often viewed as scut work, and not very rewarding. The good news is that this can be turned around by creating mandates that give committees clear guidance about the kinds of things they can handle on their own, and when they need to consult. Committees operating on a short leash tend to feel stifled; empowered committees tend to be much happier.
o Lack of accountability
It tends to be awkward for communities to hold their members accountable for behaving in line with agreements and following through on commitments. While I get it that this can be uncomfortable, it doesn't get less so because it's ignored. And I'm not talking about draconian punishments; I'm just talking about a baseline expectation that it you're perceived to be coloring outside the lines, someone has a right to ask you about it and it's your responsibility to show up for a good faith attempt to sort it out.
1. Stop taking volunteers from the plenary floor
Sadly, most communities largely fill committee slots by announcing openings in plenary and gratefully accepting the first people to raise their hand. You can do better than that. While I have no problem with testing the waters for general interest in plenary; please don't make the assignments based simply on who volunteers first. That's committee roulette.
While I understand the saying "beggers can't be choosers," I believe creating some intentionality and esprit de corps can make a difference. How? Read on.
2. Create mandates for committees (and managerships) that spell out expectations
If you want to be more careful about selecting the right people for assignments, first you have to have a common understanding of what the job entails—so people know what they're assessing candidates for. That means a thorough job description.
While it will take some effort to put all this in place on the front end, once you have it, it will only occasionally need tweaking.
3. Create a list of qualities wanted from people serving in positions of responsibility
Answers here will vary according to the job (because, or course, what's wanted varies by job). For example, you probably want attention to detail as a desirable quality for an accounting position, while sociability may not enter the equation. For someone serving on Conflict Resolution you probably want to rate discretion high, yet not care a fig about their familiarity with spread sheets. You get the idea.
Note: If you're talking about committees, it can be useful distinguishing between qualities that you want some members of the committee have, and qualities you want all members of the committee to possess.
Once the group signs off on 2. and 3. above, ask members to self-assess for suitability on the basis of three questions relative to the job:
a) Do you have the skills needed for this assignment?
Essentially, do you have the qualities the community has decided it wants for this job? Mind you, there's no guarantee that others in the community will agree with your self-assessment, but at least it provides a somewhat objective basis for that conversation (rather than it simply being a beauty contest).
There's also an additional nuance here: is the community committed to providing opportunities to learn skills it depends on? If so, it may make good sense to select people as apprentices to pair with more experienced folks so that there's a larger pool of competency to draw from in the future. If you always select your most experienced person, there's no growth.
Taking this point about opportunities one step further, do you want to set term limits for how long people can serve in a position? Sometimes people can get pretty comfortable in a certain slot and nobody else gets a chance. Is that OK? Continuity and experience are one thing; entrenchment and fiefdoms are another.
b) Do you have the availability needed for this assignment?
The most obvious meaning is are there enough hours left on your dance card after subtracting for employment, commuting, unwinding (recharging the battery), family time, other community duties, spiritual practice, etc, to actually do the work. However, it's more subtle than that. It's not just do you have the time; do you have the psychic bandwidth to engage in this work with grace and good energy? Remember, we're expressly not encouraging martyrdom.
Further, some jobs are difficult to budget for. Where accounting responsibilities tend to be highly predictable and uniform in terms of the time it takes to do the work each month, duties on the Conflict Resolution Team are notoriously unpredictable: one month nothing and the next 20 hours. Do you have the kind of flexibility needed for this job?
c) How motivated are you to do this work?
This is about whether you want the job. Would it be fun, or growthful in ways that attract you? Maybe it makes a difference who you'll be working with—if so, be sure to put that out. It might be a good idea to ask candidates what factors, or changes in the job, would make it more attractive. Maybe there are simple ways to alter how the job is configured to enhance motivation.
Once you've done all this, now you're in a much better position to make committee selections (with the added bonus that people serving on committees are much more likely to enjoy serving).
5. Periodically evaluate performance
Now that you're clicking on all cylinders, don't forget to close the information loop. By building into each job the expectation that there be a periodic performance evaluation, you get to check to see if mandates need adjusting, managers are doing their job, and committees are playing nice with one another.
One last thing: it's a good idea to conduct exit interviews when people step down from assignments. Ask questions like:
—How good was the experience for them?
—Did they get the cooperation they needed to do a good job?
—Were their contributions appreciated?
—Did they get support from the community when they asked for it?
—Did they wish they'd done anything differently?
—Does the mandate need tightening, or revisions made to the list of qualities wanted for people doing this job?