by Melissa French-Emery and Ellen Orleans
Editor’s note: Occasionally we reprint earlier articles that continue to have value. This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of our print magazine, Cohousing, written by two individuals who oversaw outreach and group process for Wonderland Hill Development Co.
As a group, cohousers tend to be a creative, resourceful lot, and their marketing efforts reflect this. Friendly flyers hung in coffee shops, member-staffed booths at Farmers' Markets, slide shows at local bookstores, ads in the Sierra Club newsletter and preschool newsletters – along with the indispensable word-of-mouth promotion – can draw prospective members to a new cohousing community by the score.
But well-attended meetings and excellent media coverage don't automatically lead to lasting membership. Getting people in the door is only the first step – helping prospective members get their questions answered, concerns addressed, and perhaps most of all, helping them feel included is a daunting task. It's what we call "the art of membership."
Welcoming newcomers to the group
When marketing and membership work in tandem, a group's viability is enhanced. When a membership team is inexperienced or poorly trained, on the other hand, disaster can result. So, how can a group keep those wonderful folks they attract? Perhaps the first thing to understand is that marketing and membership deal with two different audiences:
- Marketing is aimed at a selected group or population
- Membership works with specific individuals.
The skills required for each are different.
Consider this scenario: Sally Newcomer discovers there's a cohousing group developing in her area. A single mom with two children, she talks with friends who are familiar with cohousing and decides she wants to learn more. She's excited about living among neighbors she knows, and envisions working in a community garden alongside them and taking turns watching kids. She imagines shared meals, spontaneous summer barbecues, and a leisurely cup of tea with friends in the common house. The potential for creating community feels empowering.
Sally attends a local cohousing meeting. The first thing she notices is that everyone already knows each other. She shrinks back a little, but does manage to find a temporary nametag. A couple of members say hello, then people settle in. During the meeting a heated discussion ensues. Apparently, this debate has been brewing for three months. High emotion, anger and frustrations fly.
To be helpful, Sally raises her hand to make a suggestion. Suddenly, a member from across the room snips: “You have to use the correct color-coded card." Confused and embarrassed, she falls silent. After the meeting, she drifts out the door, scratching her head, wondering what happened to her "dream" community. She never returns and the cohousing group has lost a potentially valuable member. What can a community do to prevent this kind of experience? Fortunately a lot.
Start with a strong orientation
Groups undergo various psychological stages during development: dreaming and planning, disenchantment, then deepening. Developing a community together is an arduous journey filled with hundreds of decisions and hurdles. When members join early, they work together on "the big picture." They create a vision statement, draw up meeting guidelines, and perhaps design the physical site. The sense of connection resulting from their shared experience makes it somewhat easier to weather a contentious meeting. When prospective members arrive midstream, they generally need a hand to feel connected and welcome.
At the cohousing communities Wonderland develops, we precede each general meeting with a half-hour orientation. The structure and content of each orientation session is geared toward visitors' needs. Sometimes potential members want to start with nuts and bolts ("When will it be built?" "How much will my home cost?"). Other times they need to understand the nature of cohousing ("Do we eat all our meals together?" "Do I get my own bathroom?"). A good orientation session also clarifies how to get involved, what the committees and teams do, and which ones need help.
During the orientation, visitors not only learn about the community, but also connect with members and fellow newcomers. Sometimes, if established group members arrive early for the general meeting, they will sit in on the orientation, introducing themselves and giving prospective members yet another personal connection. The community's “contact person" may wander over as well, probably having talked to or e-mailed the prospective member beforehand. Saying hello helps everyone connect a face with a name. Direct, positive, personal contact is the most important element of successful orientation.
If you can't have or don't want an orientation before a general meeting, you can still have an official greeter. Greeters should be chosen with care. Look for members who are upbeat and outgoing, yet won't come on too strong, or have a personal agenda to tout. Since joining a community in progress can be overwhelming, sometimes the best greeters are newer members, those who have not forgotten what it is like to face foreign terms and concepts (common house? Stand-aside? Sustainability?). At the same time, greeters should have a solid working knowledge of the group. For instance, they should be able to explain decision-making procedures, meeting dynamics and a little about the group's history. Equally important, greeters should know who to ask when they don't know the answer to a question.
You can have as many greeters as you want – in fact, the more the better. That way, when Greeter Number One is answering Carla's question about floor plans, Greeter Number Two can explain site location and construction timelines to Jeffrey and Eric. Before the meeting starts, have greeters station themselves at the door, introduce themselves to newcomers, and offer nametags, refreshments and directions to the restrooms! (For that matter, if your meeting room is difficult to locate, put greeters at building entrances to guide prospective members through winding halls and up dimly lit staircases).
Greeters should be sure that prospective members understand the nature of the upcoming meeting. Does the newcomer expect to attend an informational meeting, only to find out they will be sitting through an hour's worth of pet policy debate?. A savvy greeter will ask questions of newcomers and then hook them up with other members with similar interests, occupations, or family situations. ("You work in an elementary school? Doreen teaches fourth graders. Let me introduce you.") During the meeting break – and longer meetings should have breaks – it's a good idea to check in on visitors. Ask them how they are holding up, and whether they have questions. If the meeting has been a contentious one, you might explain that the group is going through a difficult period ("I swear! It's not always like this.") Or that your community views conflict as a natural and healthy part of growth. A not-so-obvious bit of information to give to first-timers is that it is okay (even advisable) to leave during the break. Especially if they have already sat through an orientation, visitors can quickly get overloaded with new information.
Hello, my name is
Another way to make newcomers feel comfortable is to begin each meeting with brief introductions ("I'm Harry, and I've been a member for two years." "I'm Sylvia and I've just joined."). This takes only a few minutes and lets newcomers know that not everyone in the group has been there forever.
Meeting facilitators can also help with the welcoming process. They explain that newcomers are welcome to voice ideas, but that they do not have voting privileges. During the meeting's opening remarks, facilitators can explain that some topics have been discussed and debated ad nauseam over the past year, and that if a prospective member raises questions about one of these topics, the facilitator will ask them to talk with a member during the break or after the meeting instead of using group time. Similarly, a brief, up-front explanation of the proper use of color-coded cards will help someone like Sally to participate. Clarifying procedures helps everyone feel more comfortable.
One activity that Wonderland stresses for all community meetings, whether the groups are recently started or long established, is the icebreaker. Activities range from simple once-around-the-room questions: (Describe your favorite autumn activity? What is your personal comfort food?) to 10-minute games such as "Get to Know You Bingo" and the mildly absurd "Chubby Bunny" (Who can stuff the most marshmallows in their mouth and still say "chubby bunny?" We use actual marshmallows.) Not only does this reduce tension and allow everyone to know their neighbors better, but also, for a few minutes, the game puts newcomers on the same level as old-timers. And that is a starting point for connection.
The buddy system
The buddy system is another way to keep newcomers coming back and, if they join, to help them integrate into the group. In the hypothetical example of Sally, someone could have followed up with her, addressed her concerns, and eventually she might have joined the group.
When someone shows a genuine interest in the community, it is a good idea to ask them if they'd like a buddy. Buddies do not need to be social extroverts, but they should feel comfortable and interested in connecting with potential or new members. Like a greeter, a buddy should know the community's history, and understand the basics of membership, sales and process. Ideally, a buddy attends monthly meetings, has been on a committee, or, at the very least, reads meeting minutes.
What do buddies do for new members? They provide ongoing contact over the phone or through email, remind them of upcoming meetings, invite them to social events, and integrate them into community meetings. Depending on where the community is in the development process, buddies might share (and make sense of!) FAQs, the membership agreement, price sheets (and incentives, if applicable), lot premiums, and contact numbers. Even better, buddies can extend themselves as friends and be available to meet socially.
Buddies can help newer members feel like part of the group by asking them to do simple chores at community meetings. Easy tasks, like handing out name tags, help new folks learn names and help existing members get to know them. When is a buddy no longer needed? Once the new member feels capable of being a buddy for someone else!
Groups in the early stage of their development often attract dreamers and visionaries – those who have an abundance of imagination and energy. It is an attractive phase. When more concrete, detail-oriented issues arise, however, some of these members may drift away. As the months and years go by, both newer and older members (visionary or not) may become bored or burn out and leave as well. Some members come back eventually and others do not. Some return only to leave once again.
While attrition is a natural consequence of creating a cohousing community, if the percentage of withdrawals is unusually high, the membership team should investigate. If the reason for people leaving is a weak integration system or insufficient education, consider revisiting your orientation, greeter or buddy system. If the problem is negative social dynamics, perhaps it's time to bring in a conflict resolution team or take everyone on a weekend retreat.
If the attrition problem is burnout, it is likely affecting the most active members of your group. One way to help a group's "burning souls" avoid exhaustion is by pairing them with coleaders, and planning for leadership transition. By making training part of a leader's job, your community will have fresh blood waiting when the burning soul finally flickers out. Also, having a person-in-training can be effective for overachieving members who can't let go of responsibility.
In general, a transition plan resembles the flight pattern of geese. The strong ones take the lead early on, allowing those less experienced to move forward in steps as the process unfolds. Meanwhile, retired masters can offer guidance and support or channel their efforts elsewhere.
If a member experiences personal difficulties, or struggles with the concept of cohousing, try to be flexible and allow them to step back. Their most productive contributions may come later in the development process, perhaps after move-in. If someone leaves the community for good, the way your community handles their departure will make a lasting impression, and perhaps color the view of members to come. To understand why members withdraw, find a current member who is openminded and not defensive about cohousing to talk with them. While some reasons for withdrawing are beyond the community's control (illness, changes in job, finances or relationships), others are not. If members leave because they feel alienated, disenchanted, or “unheard,” you may not be able to woo them back, but you can learn from their experience and hopefully, prevent a repeat of this in the future.
These suggestions are certainly not exhaustive, but they are a good start in helping to build connections and enrich community relationships. Membership is indeed an art: balancing talking with listening, facts with finesse. Upbeat orientations, gracious greeters, friendly facilitators, benevolent buddies: in the case of cohousing, it takes a community to build a community.