Send It to Committee

A similar version of the following article appeared in Communities magazine #121, Winter 2004, available from Fellowship for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545; fic@ic.org; www.ic.org.

by Tree Bressen

One of the most common causes for a bogged-down community meeting is a failure to delegate agenda items. How many times have you sat through a community meeting going through inordinate details, wishing you were anywhere else but in that room? It’s a typical problem, but reasonably easy to avoid with some care and intention.

People’s time is precious. Their time is a resource and a gift that needs to be honored and respected, or else people attending meetings get resentful and stop giving it. Those few hours each week or month when the group is gathered together in meeting should be reserved for the items of community business that really do need the attention of the entire group, rather than items that are small or only concern a few people. Another way of handling these smaller items should be created that allows the necessary action to go forward. If an item doesn’t require most of the community’s active engagement to implement, then it probably doesn’t need time on the whole group’s community meeting agenda.

In order to follow this approach, you need at least three things: (1) agenda screening, (2) a functional committee structure, (3) facilitators and other meeting participants who notice as soon as an agenda item is “small enough to fit in a box” so it can be handed off to the appropriate committee or sub-group.

Agenda Screening

The Agenda Planning article on this site offers a detailed description of the process of creating an agenda. Suffice it to say here, whoever is creating the agenda ahead of time (or even creating it on the spot) should carefully consider whether a proposed item really needs the attention of the whole group, or whether it can be better addressed by a committee or an individual member.

If the item is just informational and doesn’t require dialogue, post it on a central bulletin board, send it out to people’s mailboxes, or use email instead of talking about it. The same guideline applies if the item only requires one-way communication, such as a poll or survey, unless the survey is so simple that you just need a quick show of hands, e.g., “How many people will be here for dinner next Saturday night?” Save the meeting time for real dialogue and exploration, plus community bonding and getting to know each other better if appropriate.

Often someone suggesting an agenda item for whole group consideration doesn’t necessarily know the proper routing. It may not have occurred to that person that the item could be handled in a different way. So it’s up to the agenda creators to educate the members who approach them. This spreads knowledge throughout the group and nurtures an ethic of valuing group time.

Committees

“Teams,” “crews,” “working groups”—call ’em what you will—there are two basic types of committees: standing committees and ad hoc committees. Standing committees deal with ongoing community needs, such as Outreach, Finance, or Maintenance. An ad hoc committee is formed for a particular short-term purpose and disbands when its task is complete. Examples of ad hoc committees might include common house design, road building, or a team that convenes to revise a particular community policy.

In order to be functional, committees need both a diverse range of competent, knowledgeable people on them and a clear mandate from the larger group to function as a committee. I’d say the most effective size for getting real work done is usually three to five people. Occasionally there are compelling reasons for going larger.

Mandates from the Whole Group

The mandate from the whole group should explain as precisely as possible what it expects from the committee—think of a job description with a clear list of responsibilities and tasks. To avoid upsets and misunderstandings, be explicit about the boundaries between this particular committee’s domain and the rest of the community. Is the committee expected to research and report only, to make recommendations for the larger group to decide on, to make decisions themselves, or to implement decisions and take action?

Some communities allow items onto the main meeting agenda only after a committee has shaped the item into an actual proposal (“Our community should do ‘A'”). I think that’s a mistake, because it runs the danger of setting the committee up for failure if the item is so large or complex that they can’t possibly guess in advance all the opinions and feelings that would come up in the whole group as a result of the proposal. I recommend instead that on large issues (such as the work policy, pet policy, or major community construction), the process begin in the whole-community meeting where a general sense of the group can be gathered, and some directions for the next steps can be outlined. Then a committee can take the work further and return to the larger group later with a more specific proposal on the matter.

If the committee keeps open communication with the rest of the community, and during the next presentation in community meeting explains how they got from the general direction to the specific proposal, then they are set up for success instead of failure. An effective presentation by a committee will include: (1) a refresher on what the last community meeting determined on the issue, (2) a report on any additional research done or steps taken since then, (3) a description of what alternatives the committee considered, and (4) an explanation of why they chose the alternative they did and how it meets the variety of community needs that have been expressed. The last part in particular (the explanation), will reassure community members who aren’t serving on the committee that their concerns have been heard and are being taken seriously.

Open and frequent communication between the committee and the rest of the community builds trust, which over time can lead to the committee being given more responsibility by the rest of the group. Communication can include posting when and where meetings will be held with an invite for non-committee members to sit in; sending out minutes soon after a committee meeting has been held; talking one-on-one with community members (especially those who may be particularly concerned about an item the committee is working on); and making regular progress reports to the larger group.

Another thing that’s useful to include in the mandate is a timeline, either for regular intervals (e.g. ,”Finance Committee will send out a first draft of the annual budget by Nov. 1 each year”) or for particular accomplishments (“Landscaping Committee will get the area around the dining hall planted by fall equinox this year”). Ideally a timeline not only sets a deadline for completion of a project but also serves as a planning tool so that the committee members can be realistic about time commitments. Many people are unrealistic about the amount of time required to actually get something done. While this is sometimes a blessing—how many founders would have started their communities if they’d realized just how long it would take?—mismatched expectations about timelines can also lead to upset and resentment between people.

Who’s On It

While, practically speaking, most committees get filled with whichever warm bodies are willing, there are benefits of using a more conscious process. If a committee is convening to work on a thorny community issue, then you need to have the diverse opinions and tendencies of the group represented on that committee.

In addition, it’s helpful to have a variety of skills on hand. Try to find a balance among initiators and maintainers, visionaries and pragmatics, people with information and people to carry things out. Ideally a committee would include multiple genders, a variety of ages, and old and new members. Ideally it would have at least one or two people with communication skills, both interpersonally and in writing—essential to the work of many teams.

While it’s easy to fall into having the entire finance team populated by people who are a whiz with numbers and spreadsheets, having one or two people who aren’t math experts will help the committee stay in touch with how to explain things to everyone else in a less technical, more down-to-earth manner. And of course serving on a community committee can be a fabulous place to learn new skills. I didn’t learn much about financial planning growing up. I served on the annual budget crew at Acorn Community for several years running, however. Learning the ins and outs of community finance helped me get comfortable enough with numbers to successfully operate my own business.

Realistically, if you want to get a really solid crew functioning, it’s in your interest to invite specific people to join the committee. Effective nonprofits cultivate relationships with people who might serve on their boards months or years down the line. Thinking ahead about who to nurture into taking a role on a particular important committee and setting up mentorship and support for that person is a great way to prevent future problems and a “scarcity of committee members” from even arising.

Traditionally the first person named is the convenor, who gets together the first meeting and sometimes takes on other responsibilities as well. At the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), we also consider assigning a facilitator to any committee of six or more people.

Decision Boards

Other time-saving options are Decision Boards or “three-week rules,” currently in use at Sharingwood Cohousing (in Washington state) and Earthaven Ecovillage (in North Carolina). Committees at Sharingwood post pending decisions that they believe are within their purview on a Decision Board where all community members can see it; committees at Earthaven post the minutes of their meetings, including their decisions, by email to members and on clipboards in the kitchen and their main meeting hall. Community members have a certain number of weeks to raise concerns (three weeks at Earthaven). If concerns are raised, then the matter is referred back to committee or to community meeting for further work. If no concerns are raised by the end of the review period, then the decision becomes policy. This is a great efficiency improvement that would probably benefit any intentional community of more than 20 members.

Alert Facilitators and Meeting Participants

Lastly, the facilitators, and in fact everyone in the meeting, would do well to train themselves to notice as soon as any agenda item is too minor to take the whole group’s time. “Small enough to fit in a box” is how some groups term these items, which can be handed off to the appropriate smaller committee.

With these techniques in place, your meetings should run more smoothly and free up people’s attention to focus on the most important issues. And you’ll accomplish more in less time—which feels good no matter how you slice it.