Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Starting new communities

Happy New Year!

     It's the start of a new calendar, and my thoughts this holiday are traveling along a parallel track: the start of new cmties. It's among the most important and delicate areas that the Fellowship for Intentional Community operates in. While we're mostly helping people find cmty—and mostly that means a group to join or enhance what they already have—some important fraction of the time we're offering assistance to folks trying to launch a new group.
     I'm currently in dialog with someone (whom I'll call Mr X) who's inspired by the promise of intentional cmties to put together a Trust which will solicit donations of property for the purpose of starting cmties. The concept is that the donor, if they choose, can live in the cmty for the remainder of their life, while the title belongs to the Trust. The donor gets a hefty tax deduction (while they're still alive to use it), plus the chance to live in the bosom of cmty during their sunset years. The Trust (run by Mr X) will decide which forming groups have a sufficiently mature concept to get a lease on the property, and will further monitor cmty activities to see that the group is adhering closely enough to their plans to warrant their leasehold being sustained.
     In my back and forth with Mr X it has come out that he's studied intentional cmties and has spent some time living in them. Based on that, he believes that the main reason that most new cmties fail is because of poor planning (either no business plan or an ill-conceived one) and an inability to hold slackers to accountability. He further finds that consensus (the most common form of decision making in intentional cmties today) is grossly inefficient and hamstrings the streamlined administration that cmties so badly need.
     By having the Trust retain title to the property, he's willing to step in (gently, yet firmly) to insist that the cmty follow through on the commitments it made as a condition of their receiving the leasehold. If they don't toe the line, he's prepared to clear them out and give another group a chance. While I'm sure he doesn't intend to be arbitrary in his assessments, and will give groups which have strayed from the path a reasonable chance to get back on the straight and narrow, in the end he'll hold them accountable. He will be the personification of tough love. 
     For Mr X, the limiting factor on cmty success is decent property and sound financial planning, and there's a lot to be said for his approach. In particular, I agree that some groups fail for want of suitable property that they can afford. I also think that cmties are often poorly planned, and that starting groups can sometimes be shockingly naive about the financial resources it will take to succeed. Further, Mr X is on the money (so to speak) when he identifies accountability as a common cmty stumbling block, and I agree that many groups operate inefficiently using consensus (which is one of the reasons I get steady work as group process consultant).
     For all of that however, I have a very different view than Mr X about where the key log lies in unscrambling the new cmty logjam, and getting them flowing freely down the river of success. While Mr X thinks that cmties are essentially a financial or economic challenge, I think they're principally a social one. People are hungry for cmty because they want more connection and interaction. That leads people to attempt living together in ways that are significantly more intertwined, yet that doesn't man they have the social skills to know how to safely navigate the turbulence they are sure to encounter in such close proximity.
     Both Mr X and I agree that accountability is a serious challenge for many cmties. While he's thinking about inefficiency; Im thinking about poor morale and unresolved tensions. 
     Where Mr X wants to abandon consensus (or at least substantially modify it) in favor of more hierarchy; I think groups need more training in consensus and how to work constructively with conflict.
     I tried to point out to Mr X that for almost all groups I know, they want to control their own destiny and there will be a lot of resistance to embracing a concept where the donor (for as long as they live) or the Trust (under the control of Mr X, as the benevolent overseer) has power over the cmty's fate. He was unpersuaded by my analysis. Mr X believes that there are plenty of people wanting suitable property and willing to accept the limits he's proposing in exchange for access to land. He believes groups will come to appreciate the wisdom of his insistence on developing and adhering to a business plan, rather than chafe at the need to keep someone outside the group satisfied about the appropriateness of cmty choices and activities.
     So here we are. Both Mr X and I (on behalf of FIC) are seriously interested in helping new cmties succeed, and yet we have substantially different ideas about how to pursue it. While it's exciting to meet someone genuinely interested in the same topic (and someone who has clearly put a lot of thought into the issues), It's frustrating to feel that my attempts to offer advice (distilled from 25+ years as cmty networker) are having so little impact on Mr X's thinking!
     In the end though, that's just my ego feeling bruised. The truly good part about all this is that Mr X is fully free to try out his ideas. If, after all, he's more right than I, it'll have been a damn good thing he didn't let me talk him out of his basic concept.
     The essential challenge of consensus (that thing I champion), is learning how to get excited about ideas that are different than your own, to develop curiosity about how someone came to different conclusions on things you both care about deeply. So here's to Mr X—whose different ideas about how to substantially enhance the success rate of new cmties starts are quite different than mine.
     It's a new year, and full of possibilities. Let's see what happens.


Anonymous said...

I agree that social issues are often the most challenging. Maybe Mr. X could set up a fund for these communities to draw from to get conflict resolution and communication training. Or he could insist that they add ongoing training to their business plan. Sometimes tough love doesn't mean a slap on the wrist as much as encouraging/forcing you to go to school.

Unknown said...

After leaving my community, I was struck by how time-efficient an agreement-seeking but hierarchical organization can be. So I empathize with Mr X.'s goal of improving efficiency.

For the income generating portions of a community, consensus may not feel like a perfect fit. But for the rest of the social life of a community, non-consensual decision making isn't very attractive, at least not to people who are interested in an egalitarian culture.

In tight-knit residential communities that generate income together, the lines between income work and building a social life together are often deeply blurred. So it seems to me Mr. X's approach has a lot of tension built in. But that doesn't mean it couldn't work.