Sunday, April 6, 2014

Paid Versus Volunteer Labor in Cooperative Culture

When intentional communities start out, there is generally no end of the work and limited funds to hire its completion. If the group survives its start-up, then it will eventually transition from the hurly-burly rush of Pioneer Phase into the more measured pace of Settler Phase, where the unending punch list of things that needed to be done yesterday has finally been tamed and the group begins to taste of what "normal" means. Then things get interesting.

In the salad days, everything is typically accomplished through volunteerism fueled by idealistic zeal and the unbridled enthusiasm of the newly converted. Over time, however, that predictably wanes. Staying up into the night scrubbing god-knows-what off the walls of the used house trailer you've purchased (for a song) to handle overflow housing during your construction pushes no longer seems like fun. Now you want to pay someone to shovel snow off the solar panels so that you can spend the evening with your family and friends watching Bones.

Here's what you can predict will characterize a built community:

A. While everyone had to meet a certain minimum standard of financial wherewithal in order to catch the bottom rung of the ladder, over time the range of financial positions among members will tend to widen (some will feel flush and some will feel flushed). What happens is that life intervenes, and everyone is not dealt the same cards.

Some residents will retire and be managing on a fixed income. Others will see their income climb as their careers advance, kids graduate from college, and the mortgage gets paid off. Some will lose their jobs, and will be scrambling to meet their HOA dues. Others have trust funds and never worry about money. It's a mixed bag.

If you have money, then time tends to be the limiting factor. If you're underemployed, then labor is abundant and dollars are dear.

B. Almost all groups ask residents to contribute volunteer labor to the betterment of the community. Sometimes it's quantified; sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's recorded; sometimes it's on the honor system. But everyone is encouraged to have their oar in the water.

It's tricky setting a target for hours/month because:
o  People's availability and capacity for contributing are all over the map.
o  You don't want to set a minimum that's so high that many residents will struggle to meet it.
o  You don't want to set a maximum because it's an advantage to have residents contribute extra if they're inclined (Caution: That said, you don't want martyrs—people working beyond the expected amount and then complaining about it).
o  You don't want a large gap between those contributing least and those contributing most because it leads to guilt and feeling taken advantage of.

To the extent that community labor is about getting the work done (saving the group the expense of hiring), it makes no difference whether residents do the work themselves or pay someone else to do it for them. However, that's not the whole picture. To the extent possible (through work days and project teams) groups also promote working together, to build esprit de corps and enhance connections. Paying someone else to cover your work shift doesn't help with that.

On the one hand, the pay or play option with regard to work expectations provides flexibility, such that residents can protect whichever resource—time or money—is most precious to them. On the other, it allows an easy out for the well to do, undercutting camaraderie and the we're-all-in-this-together attitude that prevailed during Pioneer Days.

C. Despite B, there is always more work that's needed (or at least desired) than there is resident labor that's sufficiently available, skilled, and motivated to cover it. While outside hiring is a no brainer for some jobs (because the work is so odious—pumping out the septic tank; so skilled—structural engineering for the common house trusses; or so esoteric—teaching tae bo to the teens and tweens) there will almost certainly be some amount of desired work that is not covered by volunteerism yet residents are capable of covering. 

This naturally leads to the idea of hiring internally to cover the shortfall. In fact, it may be a preference to do so (why support strangers over neighbors?) To be sure, there is predictable awkwardness about simultaneously being: a) on equal footing with someone as a fellow resident in the community; and b) in an employer/employee relationship in the context of the hired work. But let's suppose you've figured all that out. There's still a further problem: hiring erodes enthusiasm for volunteering.

Once residents start getting paid, why would anyone contribute above and beyond as a volunteer? Work that people were willing to do for free when everyone was volunteering, suddenly becomes drudgery if money is available for labor and you're not getting any.

The tone shifts from "Let's pull together and get this done" to "Just do your expected hours and then start filling out invoices for anything beyond that." And it gets worse. There is often not enough funding to cover all the desired work not being covered by volunteers, which leads to tenderness around why some work gets paid and other work doesn't. When there was no money for internal compensation, there was little squabbling; now that there's money, there's bickering.

Here are some questions that will need to be addressed if you travel down this road:

o  How (and by whom) will it be decided which jobs get paid, and which will have to wait for additional funding?
o  Should all work done by residents by paid the same (analogous to the way volunteer labor is valued), paid market rate, or something in between?

o  How will you maintain a culture of volunteerism in the face of increased remuneration for community work?

o  Will you be able to hold residents accountable as employees (in ways that are nearly impossible when every is a volunteer)?

Ironically, in an effort to move toward economic sustainability, hiring community members can place considerable pressure on social sustainability.

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