So you want to start a community
Some of us who live in established successful communities regularly get questions about how to start new communities. There is pretty standard advice which is worth sharing in this format.
Before you start a new community you should:
- See if there is an existing community which meets your needs
- Live in an existing community before you start one
Starting a new community is crazy hard work. Even if you have a clear vision, excellent people to start it with, a place to move into and ample resources to start it, your chances of success are low. And the chances that you are starting with all these advantages is pretty low.
For all manner of reasons, many people feel that community life would be good for them. Perhaps they have fond memories of living collectively in college. Or maybe they miss a close knit family and wish to reproduce this environment with friends and intimates of their own choice. It is easy to imagine an isolated life in the mainstream which makes people long for something richer and more interconnected.
Beyond this, people like to create. They want to build something new, craft something with their preferences and identity built into it. This is fantastic. But because community creating is so difficult, your first step in this adventure should be a serious review of the communities which already exist. It is far easier to join an existing community than it is to start a new one. (This does not mean that it is easy to join a community; this can be an ordeal in itself.)
And even if the community you find is not perfect for you to live in long term, there is a strong case to be made for trying to live in an existing community before you build your own. My own failed thinking might be instructive in demonstrating this point. Before I came to Twin Oaks, I really wanted to start my own activist-oriented community in eastern Europe. I had been fighting Russian-designed nuclear reactors which were being completed by Western companies after the Berlin Wall came down and I was convinced that a community of organizers would be a powerful tool in preventing dirty energy solutions from spreading.
I also thought I knew what was critical in making this proposed community succeed. Specifically, one needed to have a good decision-making model and a carefully selected income engine. I guessed at the time that consensus would be the governance solution. I also thought the business should be something that it was easy to train people in, which was not a classical assembly line situation. I visited Twin Oaks nearly 20 years ago now, with a focus on these specific aspects.
What I found was that I was wrong. Twin Oaks did not use consensus and while I often complain about our decision-making model, it functions reasonably well and there are lots of different models which serve different communities (sociocracy, voting models, charismatic leaders, councils of elders, boards of directors, etc). What I see now is that members being cooperative and flexible, is more critical than what specific decision format you select.
Consensus does have advantages
It also turns out that there are lots of different ways to pay the bills. And while I thought what I was looking for was a well-structured community owned cooperative business, in most cases, new communities don’t have this and the individual members pool income from straight jobs. Businesses which support income sharing communities (the income engines) come in all manner of different shapes and as long as you have some people who are willing to do sales work (often a problem in communities) you have a chance at building a culture around your business and being viable. It also helps tremendously that income sharing communities are very cheap to run because of the high degree of sharing which is happening.
What I did not realize was how central a role internal communication culture and especially managing gossip would play in the survival of communities. This does not come up in most guides on how to start communities. But if you get it wrong, it will be more important than if you selected voting over consensus. Because of the intensity of community living, you need to be able to recover from events where trust gets damaged, or the fabric of your community will likely unravel. This is why some of us spend so much time working on things like Transparency Tools.
I would not have known this if I had not lived in a community. I would have prioritized solving the wrong problems. The lived experience of being in a community will also help you find out what about community living does not work for you. Like it or not, community life will almost certainly push your buttons. Learning this about yourself before you take on the giant task of starting your own community is basically a necessary prerequisite for success.
Having kids in your community is also clever.
This article first appeared in the Commune Life Blog