by Ardell Broadbent
After eight months of volunteering for an intentional community, and then renting a house there for four months, I saw many people move in, temporarily or hoping for a long term stay. They came full of enthusiasm. Some were inspired by positive reviews from short-term residents. Everyone eventually left. I want to share my observations in a way that could help interested individuals evaluate ICs, but this could also help owners or managers. These are changes that I would want to see, as a potential community member, before I would feel safe or willing to join a community long term. At one point I had been invited to participate in a leadership training session and had helped with grant writing, so I believe it was fair to conclude they might consider my perspective worth considering. This is a letter of feedback I offered to the owners prior to stating my intent of leaving. Even though I felt it was most likely they would dismiss it as they had others’ feedback, I felt it was important to offer what I could. Specific names are removed. A related page discusses leadership challenges, which passes on additional points that I learned from the situation described next.
A Workable Business Model for Challenging Times
I understand you are already considering a rent-to-own model. I would like to help you work out some of the details even if we both decide I’m not a good fit for the community. I learned from my own experience with using my home as a rental, that altho short term you can charge higher per-night price, short term rentals can yield lower income due to times between renters and the expense of turnovers. Also, short term rentals increase your covid risk and might create personnel overwhelm. Both on Airbnb and TripAdvisor, [this IC] is rated as average. That means you probably aren’t going to be able to charge top pricing for short term stays. That could keep you on the hamster wheel of chasing short-term profit and thus not being able to invest the energy to level up to admit long-term renters who could become fully contributing community members. Whatever you need to do to keep afloat in the short term, your best chance for financial sustainability seems to be in bringing in community members who (a) have committed with a solid understanding of policy and (b) feel confident that they can safely buy in. It seems the pandemic has heightened people’s interest in living sustainably, so it would be an excellent time to send out an invitation for applicants who have prior ties to [this IC] to live a year on site. Perhaps those with prior on-site residence could have their prior time count toward the year. After that trial run, you could feel more confident to do a rent-to-own agreement. This could help move you toward what you say you have long wanted: a close-knit small community that doesn’t require constant teaching and conflict management.
Please consider the following recommendations:
- Site fees and policies need to be available online in detail. I certainly wasn’t aware of some of the extra mandated fees, although I read the handbook and much more. Pandemic policies and other safety precautions need to be available online. People need to be able to decide prior to onboarding whether or not they (a) can afford the costs and (b) feel comfortable with and commit to abide by all policies. In my case, [name of prior long-term member] was excellent at onboarding in some aspects, but she can’t be expected to memorize and transmit every policy. I explained in advance what was affordable for me. I buy much of my own food, so my expectation was that the amount was adequate.
- It didn’t feel it was fair to be told my food contribution was insufficient after I’d already been accepted on site and my payments accepted. This erodes trust.
- [Prior long-term member] does not have authority to make adjustments where the policy may not be adequate for describing a particular circumstance. Therefore it’s important to designate some members with authority to take the time for conversations with those onboarding prior to them coming. They might not know what questions to ask, so it’s important for [this IC] to prompt the conversations by providing more written description.
- It was an excellent suggestion to read Slow is Beautiful and Creating a Life Together. I found that these books helped me understand the values of [this IC] and feel that there was alignment. Similarly, a legal commitment to use mediation rather than litigation seems in line with [this IC] values. You could make it a required agreement to use mediation as a first step, which many organizations do. This may have helped avoid the two lawsuits that [this IC] now must contend with.
- Potential members ideally should have an engagement period of consistent interaction with the current community for both [this IC] and the potential members to decide whether they might be a good fit. I found that volunteering regularly over 11 months gave me a better idea of what [this IC] life is like. Invitations to outdoor events or zoomed in events could be another important way of interacting. To assist in this, I would be available to continue to offer tours, and add emergency preparedness and resilience circles for the community if you believe that would be helpful. This could also help [this IC] increase its exposure and community reputation.
Team Agreements and Community Service Hours
You have complained that people are leavers. Without more transparency and fairness than currently exists, I expect this would continue. With the current governance, I would not feel comfortable to be part of the community or buy into it as an investment, even though there are some tremendously attractive aspects of it. I don’t mean for this to be an insult. I hope it can prompt some restructuring that will allow [this IC] to be the great example of a teaching institution that it has been and has the greater potential to be. Please consider the following recommendations for increasing longevity of residents:
- It appears that you do consider potential residents or off-site workers according to the skills that are needed in the community. It is important to build in some redundancy to protect [this IC] assets. A knowledgeable trained backup person for farm, garden, and business functions is important. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but I will state the obvious: lack of longevity prevents people from reaching optimal skill levels.
- You need someone available who has time for communication about the team agreements early on, and this ideally should be someone who has authority to negotiate terms of the team agreements, or at least could give realistic guidance before a final review. This didn’t happen for me except for a brief overview. Unfortunately I didn’t press for more discussion, because it was an intensely busy time as I jumped in to help with managing the covid-related challenges and high turnover during the first months of my stay. People who respect a leader’s time will need to be invited to a conversation. You can’t expect new members to set a time for a meeting. As happened with me, newcomers are unlikely to press for a meeting only when the situation reaches a quite uncomfortable level.
- The team agreement needs to be honored. It isn’t fair or helpful to continually ask people to do different chores than they agreed to and more than their agreed-on hours. For example, in my team agreement schedule I have the paddock picking, tours, grant writing, and [one of the affiliated courses] each-one-teach-one group onsite. I also found it consistent with my skills to help with the newsletter, the covid policy, and starting the morning check-ins. I helped with Airbnb turnover and hospitality when urgent, only because [this IC] seemed severely understaffed for that. It was uncomfortable to be pressured to help with food processing and asked repeatedly to “re-evaluate priorities” when I was already consistently doing double or triple my required hours. This kind of treatment made me feel my current contribution was unvalued, especially because of frequent criticism. I didn’t experience it as offered in a friendly manner. I hope this feedback can help improve the team agreement conversation for others, so that there is more clarity before onboarding.
It alarmed me to hear that the last big grocery trip was on credit card. If [this IC] is to be financially sustainable, it would be better to do a group plan for how to get by with what’s available. With the current full freezers and garden, I don’t see that all those purchases were necessary. I would be very nervous to join finances permanently with any organization that is not frugal enough to recognize that there are times to splurge and times to make do with less. It is dangerous to not keep an emergency fund. During our last meeting, [director and owner] mentioned the village needs people who can afford to help pay for emergency expenses. It isn’t fair to tell residents that because [this IC] is about community, its short term residents should contribute to unexpected costs. It’s unfair because we have no decision-making about expenses and no long term benefit from the added expenses. If someone is willing to pay extra, they should be offered extra benefits, not pressured to pay or leave. My perception of the culture is that if someone is not a favorite, they are pressured to work more, pay more, or leave. I came in good faith, worked hard, and consistently paid the amount I had agreed to. Now I’m being pressured to pay more. [I later learned one resident of 1.5 years had bought shares at $10K but had no paperwork nor way to sell the shares when she left. There was no recourse except to sue. She wasn’t willing to sue, and would have had to force the sale of property to get any reimbursement. The IC already has two current lawsuits against it, which have been ongoing for years.]
There should be third-party mediation available to work out differences. Just as doctors don’t operate on themselves or their family members because they are considered too emotionally invested, those trained in mediation can’t be unbiased in applying mediation principles in their own disputes. A resident’s sense of safety must be respected. If no egregious policy violations have been made, residents should be allowed to finish the term of residence agreed on. No one should feel that if they lose favor of one person, they can be made to leave without notice. This practice has eroded trust of residents.
There should be a policy of refunding a pro-rated amount of site fees if someone is asked to leave early and will not stay their pre-paid number of days. There needs to be clear and realistic assessment and management of damage and damage deposits so that [this IC] doesn’t have further legal troubles.
Consistency of Rules and Meeting Times
[this IC] has many good systems in place, and they should be adhered to. Sometime there is a need for exceptions, but it is not helpful for it to be seemingly on a whim. For example, there were three team meetings in a row cancelled. There was a closing down of the [one step in the food waste process] for weeks because someone put a paper muffin liner in, which wasn’t necessary and left us unsure what the alternate process should be. The decision to make [former long-term member] have a two week isolation because of her decision to carpool—while she wasn’t breaking any written policy, and while the [invited guests] were coming to meetings without masks—was not fair nor consistent.
There needs to be shared decision-making about more aspects of the community life, or it will feel authoritarian. Decision-making needs to be more equitable than having discussion-by-all but decision-by-one. There aren’t enough people to form the subgroups for sociocracy, so holacracy is a more workable model currently. You won’t likely attract capable and fair people the way [this IC] is governed currently. You will attract and retain only people who have few other options and/or who likely will agree to any rules but will be quietly subversive. Those with better options will probably not choose to stay. An autocratic style also creates a bottleneck where things can’t get done because a decision-maker is too busy to discuss every issue, yet insists on doing so.
Leadership and Management
Perhaps [this IC] could call back a past capable member to help manage personnel. I suggest the following example could be a good model to take some of the load off [director and owner] so that she can put her tremendous skills where they are most needed and useful. My sister was brilliant at building from scratch a highly rated private school from the ground up (Daybreak Academy in Utah), but she eventually admitted she wasn’t the best person to do the personnel management of the gentle teacher types who are excellent at nurturing and guiding young children. Her directness and take charge attitude was necessary in the outward-facing business side, but for the day-to-day internal management, she admitted she was too abrasive. She kept alienating and offending staff members. She wisely hired a director to do the personnel management, and together they have long been an excellent team. My sister still does the firing because she is suited to it, but she relies on the director to help with the decisions about when someone’s employment is no longer useful. A team approach could make the best use of complementary leadership attributes.
Cost of Housing
[From early 2020] It isn’t realistic to charge $1500 monthly for rent/sitefees/upgrade. On airbnb, looking for month-long discounted rates, there are available [location] similar-sized rentals for around $1200 monthly, which include utilities and wifi and sometimes on-site washer/dryer. Although [this IC] has unique aspects to offer, the solar electric is inadequate on cloudy days to even keep the [ultra-mini energy star] refrigerator going, and to barely even charge a laptop. Managing with headlamps is not ideal. Living without running water and having to keep a fire going is time intensive. I hope you will reconsider the price you recently demanded.
I invite you to consider how you are going to find investing members who stay long term. Why is it that “people are leavers” as you say? Out of the reported thousands of people who have visited yearly and the high level of current interest in living on site, how is it that the nine possible household spaces aren’t filled, not even the mostly-completed structures? Why is there is only one [permanent family] currently? It is not easy to offer this advice, and perhaps I am able to give it only because of being more detached now. It might not easy to hear, yet I hope this will be of some benefit.