Thursday, June 12, 2008

Selling the Unexplainable

I'm in Boston this week. It's the start of the national Cohousing Conference, happening June 12-15 on the campus of Bentley College in suburban Waltham, and I'll be here for the duration. (I know I promised a series on the Dimensions of Community which I launched last week—I'll get back to it after the conference.)

There was a bunch of opening day activities today, including bus tours of area communities and pre-conference workshops. Tomorrow the full circus opens. The most interesting thing for me today was a "professionals dinner." There were about 30 of us, all of whom regularly earn income working with cohousing groups. After a pep talk from Coho/US Executive Director Craig Ragland—which included new features being added to their website—the after dinner discussion focused on what could be done to increase the numbers of people attracted to cohousing.

While I have uneasiness with the (relatively understandable) tendency among cohousing folks to be "coho-centric" and ascribe to their particular segment of the Communities Movement characteristics which apply to all intentional communities—which parochial foible was in evidence tonight—this was nonetheless a good-hearted and thoughtful group that is interested in expanding community living across the board. It was an agreeably collegial evening.

Cohousing is clearly expanding. The question before us was what we handful of professionals could do to appreciably augment that; to "grow the pie" in Craig's words. While many ideas were surfaced, I want to focus here on two:

Widening the Circle
I was surprised (and pleased) to learn of an initiative in Boulder CO aimed purposefully at increasing the community quality of neighborhoods. Wonderland Hill (the leading cohousing developer in the US) employee John Engel is the Executive Director of the newly formed Institute for Intentionally Sustainable Neighborhoods, and Wonderland Hill's principal, Jim Leach, is an enthusiastic backer.

This nicely parallels FIC's expanded mission to support what we're styling Creating Community Where You Are, and I am eagerly anticipating additional conversations with John in the next two days (supplementing what we could accomplish across the dinner table amidst the din of 30-odd nattering networkers). The key here is scope. There are orders of magnitude more people interested in and available for actively taking steps to increase the sense of community they have in the lives they already have, than will ever seriously consider jointly owning property with others and trying intentional community. This has the potential to reach way more people, and to effect social change on a much bigger scale. (When the day is done, it won't matter how many intentional communities there are; it will matter how much community there is in the culture.)

Selling the Sizzle
In conventional marketing, the key to getting the client's attention is grabbing their attention with what's hot; with the thing that's most dynamic and that directly touches their lives. While there were a lot of good ideas floated about doing a superior job of collecting firm data on how community enhances people's lives (more happiness, improved health, better adjusted children, lower carbon footprint, etc.) and how to get the word out to the wider population (our future community clients), I was struck by a suggestion made by Laura Fitch (a principal of Kraus-Fitch Architects in Amherst MA) , who observed that nothing seemed to her more potent for getting people to understand the potential of community living for improving one's life than having folks over for community meals—where visitors get more than a bellyful of food; they get a bellyful of community. Guests often get a visceral feel for community living, and that touches them in a way that words do not. If a picture is worth a 1000 words; a meal may be worth 1000 pictures.

Laura's comment resonated with me. For all of the good things we're accomplishing with intelligent community design and ecological technology—and there are a lot—in essence we're selling community, not housing. And when you're talking community, in essence you're talking relationship. There's a day-in-day-out quality of authenticity, connection, and value alignment that people simply get when they directly taste it, and which tends to produce blank stares when you attempt to convey it conversationally or pictorially.

Over and over, I've had the personal experience of making a substantive connection with a total stranger within minutes of our having met, simply because we share the lingua franca of community living. This is all the more noteworthy (and poignant) in that the obverse also obtains: there are any number of people in my life who otherwise know me well (my brothers and sisters come to mind) and are unable to understand the essence of my life at Sandhill Farm, simply because they don't speak community.

So how do we market the sizzle of community to an audience not likely to be able to comprehend what we're talking about? Maybe it's fewer conferences and a lot more potlucks.

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