Intentional Community Success Guide
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by Luc Reid, last updated 2/17/98
Following is a list of points which my knowledge to date suggests
are good ways to help ensure the success of an intentional
community (albeit different communities may define success in many
different ways). Many of them also apply to other situations, such
as co-operatives. These are drawn from the experience of a number
of communitarians, as well as from readings about communities that
seem to have succeeded or seem to have failed.
This is a working document. I am actively seeking feedback and assistance in
making it clearly, more effective, more accurate, and more useful.
I am especially interested in any experiences you may have which
support or contradict any of these points.
- Find examples of communities that have tried approaches
similar to yours, and see how they did. Look for failures as
well as successes! If others have failed where you wish to
succeed, consider changing your plans, or find a way that you
can compensate for the problems they experienced. If others
have succeeded, find out how they did what they did and
consider following their example. The examples you look for
don't have to be identical to your ideals: just look for major
elements in common. Be careful, however, of assuming you will
succeed at something only because someone else has: allow for
differences in circumstances and methods.
- Make the community your end goal. If you have a larger
goal, the community should be complementary to it, not just a
step toward it. Trying to simultaneously build the community
and complete a separate agenda can drain more from community
building than the community can afford.
- Base your plans of how people will be in the community on
how participants actually are; don't make plans based on
members changing how they think and/or act
- Plan out the major aspects of your community. Avoid the
trap of assuming "If we just _________, the rest will follow"
- Be selective. Gather individuals who share the same basic
values and are responsible enough to make the vision work. Even
a single dysfunctional individual can potentially bring down
your community, and when many members have a major disagreement
in basic values, a community can be torn apart.
- Allow for problems and failures: assume there will be
complications in bringing your vision to life, and make
allowances beforehand so that these complications don't turn
out to be fatal to your endeavor because they took you by
surprise. Many of these complications will take one of three
forms: the need for more money, the need for more time, or
interpersonal conflicts. Having a large fudge factor in money
and time estimates plus an effective structure for resolving
interpersonal conflicts can prevent many of these situations
from becoming major problems. If your plans cannot allow for
difficulties, consider re-thinking the community in phases,
ensuring that you have more than enough resources to deal with
problems in Phase I.
- Watch results. As your community unfolds, review how things
are going in comparison to how you expected them to go. Plan a
community structure that is flexible enough to change when
something is not working.
- Encourage productive work as part of the structure of your
community. If work is an enjoyable and valued activity, more of
it will get done and it will be more satisfying; which will
help your community be more successful.
- Gather a group of people who share deeply held common
beliefs (for example: a specific religion; sustainability; the
importance of social connectedness; etc.) and base the
community on those beliefs. Religious intentional communities
have a good historical track record of succeeding; this is
probably due at least in part to the effectiveness of strong
religious convictions as community "glue".
- Listen to your critics; pretend for the sake of argument
that they are right and see where that assumption leads (even
if they are wrong, the exercise may be revealing).
- If you have community businesses, plan them as carefully as
any other business. Research markets, project cash flow, write
up a business plan, and so on. Consider using a CPA or business
consultant. Remember that most new businesses fail in their
first year, and the added danger in community is that lack of
careful controls and evaluation can cause a community to
perpetuate a business that is not working well.
- If you have community businesses, offer very high quality
products or services that are consonant with your community's
values. Often small businesses can compete more effectively on
the basis of quality than on the basis of price.
- Make a business plan for the community as a whole,
including community income, community expenses, loan payments,
growth, and so on. Again, consider the services of a CPA or
business consultant. The goal of this plan is to show you what
you need to do to be financially successful as a community, and
where you have to watch for trouble
- Be explicit about community values, goals, and any norms,
rules, or guidelines. Write everything down. The process of
writing out these kinds of information helps identify grey
areas and uncovers unsuspected basic disagreements among
members while they can still be addressed. Additionally, the
written documents give you a clear way to communicate your
values to community seekers, and give you something specific to
refer to should problems arise. Be certain that you have
provided ways to update these materials as the community
changes over time.
- Have a process for expelling members under certain clearly
defined conditions. The conditions should be clearly spelled
out and agreed to before a member enters the community.
- Continually find new members, whether to grow or to replace
members who may leave.
- Avoid trying to grow too quickly, as this can be
destabilizing, and can be overwhelming in terms of effort
required to absorb the new members. Also, integrating into a
new community can take time; rushing the process may lose the
opportunity to identify difficulties early, and can cause poor
integration of members.
- Be realistic in your expectations: planning on unusually
fast growth, highly profitable businesses, or unusual success
in other areas places your community in a position where it
must excel just to survive.
- Limit the scale of your vision: decide on what the most
essential elements of your community are and focus on creating
those. Each separate issue you tackle in your initial phase not
only requires work and attention, but raises new problems
separately and in interaction with the other elements. Envision
your community as growing closer to your vision in a series of
steps or phases, and complete each phase before going on to the
- To the extent possible, avoid high levels of debt or high
monthly mortgage payments, opting instead for more modest plans
that can be expanded in the future.
- If your community depends on strong relationships among
members, ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for
members to work together, play together, and meet
spontaneously. Be wary of having only meetings or group
gatherings that are "all work and no play".
- Be wary of situations that divide members, for example
on-site and off-site membership options. Consider potential
problems and solutions regarding these divisions before they
- Avoid over-reliance on one individual or resource, for
instance a single major investor, leader, or community
business. Such reliance can mean that loss or failure of that
individual or resources results in failure of the entire
community. Exception: many communities relying on a single
charismatic leader have been successful in the past for as long
as the leader was present. The key problem in such a community
is to be prepared to survive the loss of the leader.
- Establish a single primary contact for each relationship
with another individual or organization, for instance a primary
sponsor for a potential member or a primary contact for a
supplier or purchaser. Having too many contacts can result in
confusion, duplicated effort, and conflicting obligations.
- Celebrate events within the community, for example: new
members completing a provisional membership period, children
passing into adulthood, marriages, births, deaths. Different
communities will place importance on different events.
- Make sure individuals and groups within the community have
enough autonomy to proceed with their daily obligations. For
instance, it can be crippling for a group building a structure
that requires consensus with the entire community for every
detail of the project. Strike a balance between your
decision-making processes and necessary autonomy.
- Be wary of cutting too many corners in lifestyle. While
devoted community members may be willing to live in less
enjoyable conditions than they would in the outside world, this
tends to lead to loss of members, erodes morale, and makes it
much more difficult to attract new members.
- Find ways to pair leadership with responsibility
- Go out of your way to improve the way you make decisions.
Unless you already have skilled facilitators in your group,
consider having one or more members become skilled in
facilitating group discussion and decision-making
- In the early stages, your community will be dependent on
one or more people taking initiative. This person or persons
must be able to relate with all other members, keep the group
on track, facilitate communication, and move the project
forward without dominating it. Once your community has survived
the formative stage, these leaders may well be able to take a
less active roll, while instead your groupís process and
day-to-day activities keep you on track.
- Communities need "glue": that is, basic values or
characteristics that help bond the group together. This is
another whole can of worms; I hope to be able to put up a "glue
page" at some point in the future.
What are your thoughts? Iíd appreciate your feedback.