Managing Participation in Community

Participation is one of the most important parts of community living, especially senior cohousing. It means engaging with your community around necessary work (like maintenance tasks), community meals, committees and decision-making, fun events like celebrations, and more. Being engaged with your community is the antidote to the isolation you might feel if you were living alone. It’s also a source of joy and fulfillment, giving purpose to your life and creating new friendships.

Yet participation can be one of the most difficult things to get right, and many communities struggle with it. When it comes to the work needed to maintain a community, it seems like it should be simple — you list all the tasks that needs to be done and ask people to sign up for what they can take on. But it ends up being more complicated. There are certain jobs no one really likes; some jobs or tasks are easier than others; people have different interests, skills and levels of ability; the list goes on. 

Many communities end up with a situation where some of the people do all of the work, and that can cause resentments to build. There probably is no perfect solution, but having a framework for managing participation helps. Ideally, a community should reach an agreement on expectations by consensus. 

One Community’s Approach

PDX Commons, a senior cohousing community in Portland, Ore., developed a participation policy before members even moved into our new building six years ago. The policy specified several areas of participation, from regular cleaning and maintenance tasks to committees and decision-making to community dinners and social events. It also spelled out how often one was expected to take part in each area. The community adopted the policy, by consensus, and it served us well for our first several years.

But after six years of living and thriving together, we decided it was time for a review and update of the policy. We were aware of how unbalanced participation had become, with some members doing way more work than others. We also were thinking more about how some, if not all, of us will become more limited in our ability to do certain tasks as we age. Late last year, we formed a small team to take on the review.

How We Did It

First the team looked at how other cohousing groups have approached participation. Two team members took Laird Schaub’s online tutorial* and shared what they learned with the others. They gleaned two main messages: participation is a foundation of cohousing, and the “thinking and doing” of it requires patience and thoughtfulness.  

Next, the team set about gathering input from the community. First, they conducted a simple polling exercise at one of our monthly meetings to understand how people perceived aspects of physical work, administration, and meals/celebrations. From there, the team held a whole-house meeting to hear ideas on how we could streamline our tasks. Finally, team members did one-on-one interviews to assess members’ deeper thoughts about participation. One thing they learned was that most community members enjoyed working on tasks together as a form of social contact and a way to strengthen bonding. 

A Proposed Update

After several months of research, the team felt it had extensive information to guide future participation expectations. It distilled its findings into an updated Participation House Agreement (our terminology), which it presented to the community in draft form at our September monthly meeting. 

The main difference is that the revised agreement doesn’t quantify the participation that’s expected of each member. For example, the old agreement specifies that everyone is expected to take part in at least two committees or work groups. The new agreement has a gentler approach and recognizes that everyone has different levels of ability and skills. It simply asks members to agree that they will participate as best they can in committee work, task teams, periodic work days, shared meals and other community events and celebrations. The goal is an equitable, not equal, sharing of responsibilities. We are also discussing the possibility of a “buyout” option where members pay a fee for work they can’t or won’t do so it can be hired out. This, however, is controversial and remains to be decided.

The revised agreement will probably undergo further modifications before it is accepted by the community. The team will follow up with recommendations and guidelines for sharing work relatively equitably and having people take part in activities they are able to do, enjoy and find interesting. We fully expect these guidelines will change again as our community grows older. We will find ways, together, to adapt as needed. The bottom line is that our participation policy has helped to create a high-functioning, well bonded community where members find support, fun, meaning and satisfaction.

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