Friday, April 11, 2014

Three-Legged Stools in Non-income Sharing Communities

In the clear majority of intentional communities (88-90%), members do not share income. In the overwhelming majority of those, the group takes a hands-off approach with respect to members' personal finances. So long as residents can cover their HOA dues, it's not the community's business. Or is it?

The point of an intentional community is to create a better quality of life for its members through high alignment with common values, through a greater degree of sharing, and through developing an enhanced sense of connection and neighborhood camaraderie. For some, it also a platform from which to do good work in the world—either by modeling a more just and sustainable culture, or by concentrating group resources so that a few individuals can do social change work on behalf of the whole.

Most communities hold sustainability as a common value, which is often translated as being in right relationship with the Earth (certainly a good thing). But it's more than that. It's also right relationship with each other, which is social sustainability. And it's also being in right relationship to the exchange of goods and services, or economic sustainability.

The main point of this essay is that sustainability is a three-legged stool, which does not tend to be stable when one of the legs is missing. Of the three, it's the economic leg that is most often short or wobbly, and that brings me back to the opening paragraph and the fact that most non-income-sharing communities—despite their being intentional about trying to create a better quality of life for their members—tend to ignore the economic component. Whoops!

So how do economics interweave with social and environmental sustainability? Glad you asked. In simple terms, economic sustainability encompasses people making a living by doing things that are aligned with their values and for which everyone involved in the exchange feels is fair (no one's been taken advantage of). This is necessary because it doesn't make much sense to try to meet all of your needs yourself. If your neighbor is a whiz at plumbing and you're a master gardener, it works better all around if she installs your shower and you supply her with carrots and potatoes.

But let's take this further. By living in community you're purposefully living more cooperatively, which means you can collectively own a riding lawn mower and a table saw, obviating the need for everyone to buy their own (or do without). That means you can attain a high quality life without forking over as many dollars (because you can leverage resources through sharing). That means you can either work fewer hours or choose employment that you enjoy more but doesn't pay as well: you're ahead either way. What's more, sharing equates with less resource consumption, which is good for the environment.

Building on this concept (less time spent doing work you don't enjoy), at the end of the day you're not as tired—either because you're working fewer hours or doing more satisfying work. That means you're more fun to be around, less reactive (more resilient), less inclined to have a couple stiff drinks to "unwind," and less likely to hole up in the den with a movie or zone out surfing the web. That means your social life has improved. 

Is it getting clearer how one kind of sustainability impacts another?

Almost all intentional communities wrestle with questions of ecological impact and how to navigate sticky social dynamics. How about strengthening that third leg?

Here's are some ideas of that might look like, to prime the pump: 
o  Budgets could include money set aside to capitalize a loan fund that could be used to help people afford the down payment to buy into the community.

o  The community could conceive of itself as an economic engine, thinking of how its property and facilities are a major asset that could be utilized more fully (without compromising the socially valued uses now in place) to support business ventures with a high value match—perhaps growing open-pollinated or heirloom vegetable seeds instead of lawn; renting the common house dining room on off nights for neighborhood events; devoting a couple of little-used rooms as co-office space for fledgling businesses—complete with high speed internet.

o  Members with entrepreneurial energy could form a support group that helps members create business plans, secure start-up funding, and develop jobs on site for those hoping to walk to work and save on wardrobe. Most communities have a number of people who would like part-time employment (10-20 hours/week) at home with flexible hours at decent wages. (Hint: communities are excellent candidates for flex-time and job sharing—two stay-at-home moms can share one job with the off-duty woman handling childcare for both) Further, community folks tend to be well educated and possess exceptional social skills. Surely the entrepreneurial whiz kids can turn that into a market advantage.

Part of the reason that groups tend to avoid economics is that the need doesn't touch all members. In particular, founders tend to have entrepreneurial talent (starting a business is fairly similar to starting a community) and thus are less likely to need help with their personal finances. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily true for the folks who come later. Not only is that hard to see right away, but it can be awkward focusing group attention on a need that only affects part of the group. Another reason is that it can be difficult for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs to play nice together (see The Entrepreneurial Dilemma for more on this).

I'm not saying that developing models of economic sustainability is easy, but I think they're essential, and have every bit as much right to group attention as the ecological and social. We need that stool to be stable!

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