Governance of intentional community means how you make decisions and who gets to participate. Agreements need to be decided in detail to hold all group members accountable to each other. In order to stick together and feel that the situation is mostly fair, you have to agree on how to decide and who decides. The topic of governance needs to be discussed so that your group can get clarity on what processes you’ll use and when. If your expectation is equitable or egalitarian outcomes, those don’t simply emerge because of good intentions. Those are based on following processes that take into account the complexity of human nature. You have a better chance of success trying out some of those that others have refined over decades, rather than thinking you’re going to reinvent the wheel and somehow succeed in a project that so many have given up on.
It may be that crucial long-lasting decisions are decided with a formal procedure of governance, while day-to-day less impactful decisions are made using simple conversation and reciprocity norms. It is important to be clear and upfront about the reality of the situation. For example, while IC-enthusiasts tend to favor egalitarian governance, there are often valid reasons to have an autocracy. In general, the people who have placed their credit or wealth on the line have more to lose, so they may feel it necessary to share power gradually as trust and buy-in of others increases. At the same time, most intentional communities are based on a shared interest in exploring governance styles that deviate from the norms of autocratic business leadership and from the democratic winners-and-losers outcome. If there is no shared decision-making and sharing the benefits of what is created together, the community is unlikely to attract people invested in full contribution.
- Sociocracy: multiple levels of leadership committees; AKA dynamic governance
- Consensus: agreement by all, which involves a lot of discussion
- Modified consensus: consensus, with alterations such as a backup decision style for time-limited decisions
- Holacracy: self-managing by roles and rules
- Standard governing board: vote of board members
- Democratic vote: majority opinion of (a) all contributing residents or (b) all share owners who are also residents
- Autocracy: leader or landowner makes the final decision for important matters
- Anarchy: no official authority, no micromanaging each other
- Robert’s Rules of Order: specific parliamentary procedures
- Martha’s Rules of Order: simplified version of Robert’s Rules of Order
- Do-ocracy: whoever does the work decides how it’s done
- Undecided or informal: your group may decide to use different decision processes for different types of decisions
We would love to simply tell you which is the most successful for governance of intentional community. Geoph Kozeny lived in six communities over 15 years then visited 300 to interview members and ex-members about what works. His response about what governance works: “Whatever the members wholeheartedly believe in” (Fellowship for Intentional Communities, 2014, p. 3). That said, sociocracy has gained popularity in more sizeable communities. Sociocracy benefits organization by dividing up decision-making into small groups. Your founder’s group will likely initially meet altogether, but you can use sociocracy meeting guidelines if you believe this system would serve your larger community well in the long run.
Reference: Fellowship for Intentional Communities. (2014). In community, intentionally. In Best of Communities: I. Intentional Community Overview and Starting a Community. Foundation for Intentional Community
List the names of those who are committed or interested to be part of the initial decision-making processes.
Ownership of Physical Property
Who does or will own the building(s) and/or land on which you will reside? Is there a current or preliminary situation that will change over time? Some options are rent, rent-to-own, purchase. If jointly owned, how will ownership be structured? How will your initial team as well as newcomers buy in or buy out? In the footer, see the Contracts page and Financing page.
Even before you have shared housing, you’ll need a basic framework for task assignment and decision making. Some people want to experiment with what comes naturally, while others want to start with a structure that worked for others. If you want it to always feel like a group of friends, without creating any rules, it’s important to consider how it will feel to others who may want to join. Will it feel like there is room for them or only for those with long-standing friendship? Will it feel like there are a few influential personalities that get their way more often than not?
- This page details several options for group processes for governance of intentional community, some of which focus on group decision-making: http://icmatch.local/funding-sources/#groupwork-processes
- The consultants page features experts in sociocracy and other consensus-based decision-making strategies.
- Administrative tasks: When and by whom do administrative tasks get done? If they don’t get done, what happens? If hired out, who pays?
- Agreement discussion and recording: when and how do group agreements get hashed out, recorded, and posted in an accessible location?
Weekly Planning Meeting
A weekly planning meeting is essential if (a) the group is functioning as an income-producing work team, (b) some of the group has closely shared housing, and (c) some members are not in the leadership meetings and so needs an update. During meetings one member, if not the meeting facilitator, could be given a task to be on the lookout that when someone brings up an issue that’s not directly relevant to completing the meeting agenda items. This member would be responsible to respectfully invite them to bring up the topic in the meeting devoted to interpersonal issues. Many consensus-based meetings close with a comment by each person. This gives a chance for each person to be heard, and themes to be picked up on for possible work in the next meeting. If you’ve gone overtime, you might have a round with each person offering just one word to end the meeting as a checkout.
Regular time and place of planning meeting:
Group-wide Communication Norms
- Regular communication is crucial, because governance of intentional community breaks down without it. Decisions need to be communicated in order for them to be implemented. Rules need to be known and accessible for them to be remembered and followed.
- Platform the group will consistently use for group-wide communication: Email Telegram Discord Googlechat Whatsapp Facebook Instagram Videoconferencing Loomio Communecter.org
- Mandated check-ins or meetings: frequency and timing (e.g., check once per week for notices that will be notices will be available by Monday 9 am eastern time; members are expected to have read them by the following day 9 am eastern time)
Governance Participation Criteria
Describe what criteria are necessary for participation in decision-making at various levels. What attributes or contributions are required before someone is admitted into the leadership group or decision-making team, if there is one? Outside of trivial day-to-day decisions, do major decision-makers (a) need to have been in the community a certain amount of time and (b) need to be able to contribute a certain amount financially, such as owning shares? Are there term limits? Who will keep records of decisions and where will they be accessible?
Participation requirements for being part of a governance group:
- Do all members need to participate in meetings, and if so how often?
- If a member misses a mandatory meeting, with a defensible reason, how and when do they get a chance to weigh in?
- Can a member pass or is speaking mandatory?
- What are the governance roles of the group?
- How and when will governance roles be re-decided in the future?
Record of Agreements
We invite you to use our templates to create a sharable pre-formatted record of agreements (see the section titled Templates for Your Agreement Documents).
Governance Case Studies
Case Study: Leadership dysfunction in an ecovillage: Studying effective and ineffective governance of intentional community can help your group avoid mistakes others have made.
Counteract Negative Human Tendencies
Without clear written agreements and contracts, there are fewer ways to curb bad behavior and self-interested motivations. Without guidelines for decision-making, power-plays and even bullying can derail your intentions for egalitarian structure. Without clear agreements, your community is more at risk of the following negative tendencies:
- every decision might rest on a popularity contest, not on the long-term best interests of the group
- every decision might become subject to “might makes right;” an owner who has ultimate veto power won’t be challenged
- those who give kickbacks to build up personal alliances will undermine the group for their own self-interest
- dark triad types can accrue increasingly more power without others noticing, until they take over