Advice for starting a community

Some pearls of wisdom

Because of my experiences as founder of the Magdalen Farm Centre, and two cohousing projects, I am asked this question regularly. This document is an attempt to sum up some of the general conclusions from my experience, hoping this may be helpful to others exploring intentional community or other pioneering projects.

Create a vision community

Whilst it often needs one individual or couple to initiate the vision, I wouldn’t do anything until you have established an actively supportive nucleus of people who can help you to shape, sustain and start implementing the vision. Some of these should be people willing to become active, resident members of the project once established. Qualities you should look for in assembling such a group should include personal support as well as coaching/sounding board/challenge for yourself, the ability to link the spiritual and practical levels, as well as specific areas of expertise relevant to the project.

Test-drive your fantasy

Identify relevant projects already in existence which embody aspects of your vision: visit them, work there for a week, learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of your idea. Also, find ways to experiment with, develop and prove your concept on a small scale, at low cost, before the massive investment: for example by running short programmes at another venue if relevant. Remember how Steven Levine phoned Ram Dass excitedly to say that he wanted to start a centre for the terminally ill, and got the reply: ‘You can start it tomorrow with a telephone line for people to call you.’

Develop your network

Start putting the word out about your new idea to your existing contacts, and ask them for suggestions on further contacts. Think also particularly about established organisations who could provide you with a flow of clients/funding/testimonials. The number of people who will need to be aware of your project in proportion to the number who will actually actively support it is liable to be remarkably large!

Address your funding

Early on, work out realistically what the total investment is likely to be, especially to get all the basic ingredients up and running. This is likely to be a lot more than buying a site and building and furnishing the facilities: you need to allow for the overheads of operating the place and publicising it while usage builds up. Think creatively in the early days about how you could meet these funding needs…

Establish credentials

You will need to do this to attract both funding and clients. You may need to gain some additional work experience yourself to add to your personal credentials; also think about areas in which you will need credibility, and seek to attract active helpers and patrons/trustees who will provide you with experience and credibility in these areas.

Interpersonal dynamics

In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges/learning areas in this kind of project. To quote Ruth White: ‘In the past, many communities were places of refuge for weak people. The future role of intentional communities is as a way in which strong individuals can come together and create something even greater by learning how to work together.’ True, and the challenge of getting strong individuals to collaborate is quite a major one…!

Recommendations for further reading

Creating a Life Together, by Diana Leafe Christian: this is a wonderfully clear, practical book which draws on decades of experience from many intentional communities: essential reading!

Builders of the Dawn, by Gordon Davidson and Corinne McCloughlin: a superb book by two people who lived at Findhorn, and founded their own intentional community in the USA, distilling the experience of many, many intentional communities around the world.