Questions and Answers
Intentional Community Resources
What is an Intentional Community?
Meadowdance News
Agreements and Intentions
Contact Us
Links Home

Intentional Community Success Guide

Meadowdance - Threaded Alternative Energy Discussions
Send e-mail - Comment on this Site - Recommend a Link

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 next.
  • 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 are created.
  • 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.