The decision to start an intentional community is not one to make lightly. While stats aren’t verified, many say the failure rate of new communities is similar to that of business start-ups — that is high, costly, and painful for many would-be founders.
Despite these discouraging odds, the world certainly needs more intentional communities.
And you may destined to start one.
We need more centers for inspiration and models for a better world, whatever “better” may look like for you. We need places where neighbors support each other deeply and actively work together to enrich the place they call home. We need more resilience, trust, connection, support, and belonging.
We need more intentional communities.
We also need more people to join established ones.
There are already many hundreds of intentional communities in existence, making it easier than ever to find one to join. Additionally, the path to start an intentional community is far more well trodden than in decades past, making accessible more resources, consultants, and frameworks to see a project through to success.
If you crave a life in community, there are two primary paths you can take to get there:
- You can start a community from scratch – Path of the Community FOUNDER
- You can find an existing community to join – Path of the Community FINDER
These two paths into community living are both rewarding and challenging in their own ways. Obviously one is much easier than the other, though oftentimes people switch between the two roles depending on life circumstances and their needs.
How do you know which path is right for you?
Below is a step-by-step guide to help you navigate this decision.
Steps to Decide if You Should Start an Intentional Community
Step 1: Create Your Community Wishlist
Before diving into research or visiting communities, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for. Make a wishlist. Your wishlist will serve as your north star as you move through the subsequent steps.
At a minimum, your wishlist should encompass:
- Location: Where do you envision your community? Urban, rural, or somewhere in between?
- Size: Do you imagine a small, close-knit group or a larger, more diverse community?
- Values: What core principles will drive the community?
- Lifestyle: Are you looking for a farming community, a spiritual one, or perhaps a community based on shared hobbies or professions?
To help make this exercise easier, we’ve put together a handy worksheet for creating “Your Community Wishlist.” Inside you’ll find a series of question prompts and then a section where you can list out what it is that you do and don’t want in your ideal community.
For this exercise, it’s okay to be specific and idealistic… we’ll refine and get more grounded as we go. Right now just indicate the items on the list that are truly non-negotiable for you. As in, you would never join a community unless it has these specific aspects.
For the rest of the items, you are flexible. Flexibility is good. More on that later.
Step 2: Research and Visit Communities
Once you have a clear wishlist, start researching. There are many hundreds of intentional communities around the world. There are even more in some early stage of development ahead of wherever your community vision is currently.
A critical part of deciding to start an intentional community is the clear knowledge that you have thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly) researched every community out there that comes close to matching your wishlist.
You need to feel confident that by pursuing a new community venue you are not reinventing the wheel but rather creating something that is truly different and needed. Remember, it’s much easier to join a community in progress than start from scratch.
Visit Before You Start an Intentional Community
And it goes without saying, but how can you expect to start an intentional community if you haven’t first visited one! Or many!
If you’re new to visiting communities, do read the “Guide to Visiting Intentional Communities.”
Not sure where to find communities? Check out this list of community directories.
For many people, location is a critical factor. There may be communities that match your vision, but nothing in the area where you want/need to live, or where you already own property suitable for a community. Still try to visit those communities further afield. If there are communities close to you in proximity but they aren’t places you can see yourself living, go visit them too.
You will always learn something valuable from every community visit. More importantly, you’ll network with other founders and community leaders who will be critical to your success if you eventually decide to start a community. These forebears can share valuable perspectives, refer you to consultants, share funding sources, and (if local to you) can help with navigating permitting and relationships with the municipality.
In her highly recommended book, Building Belonging, author Yana Ludwig shares a personal story demonstrating why visiting communities is essential for you to refine your community vision:
“I particularly recommend visiting both communities that sound similar to what you want to create and communities that have some real differences. That may sound like weird advice, but here’s what it is based on. When I first moved into community, I had an image of myself as someone who would just love to live in a cabin in the woods somewhere, pretty isolated and surrounded by the glories of nature. In this community I got the chance to do just that. It was great!
For about a month.
And then I started noticing these strange longings to be right in the middle of things. I found myself very drawn to living in one of the dorms instead of that sweet little cabin, and resenting the 10 minute walk to home. A few months later, my partner and I did a room swap and I was much happier — and slightly wiser — after that. Had I not had this experience, though, and had decided to start a community, I probably would have fought hard to get one where everyone had their cabin in the woods . . . only to come to hate my own creation.
So yes: please give existing communities a chance to teach you something new about yourself before you start the founding process.”
Step 3: Revisit Your Wishlist and Get Flexible
By this point, let’s imagine you’ve studied up on all the possible options for existing communities. You’ve read their websites, spoken with them on the phone, and hopefully visited as many as your money, time, and energy allow.
Now it’s time to reflect on your initial wishlist. You might find that some of your priorities have changed based on real-life observations. Be prepared to be flexible. The perfect community might not exist, but one that ticks most of your boxes might be.
Time for a reality check. As Yana Ludwig reminds us, starting an intentional community is “a hard, long, and not simple journey.”
Can you save yourself all this trouble by being flexible enough to join a community that’s close enough to your vision?
Step 4: Assess Your Energy and Time Availability
Starting an intentional community is no small feat. It requires immense dedication, energy, and time. It’s much more than just a full-time job in the initial stages, and will become at least a part-time job for the foreseeable years.
“Expect that it will be between two and seven years before you actually make it onto property with your group. During that time, you will have to learn new skills, stretch out of your comfort zones (whatever they are), and deal with conflicts, tensions, and serious values questions with your group. You will spend many hours in meetings, watch people you come to care about come and go, do some of the most complicated planning work possible (and then throw half of it out the window six months later), and make hard compromises. Persistence, patience, and hard personal work are in your future if you decide to do this.”
- Do you have the energy to lead and manage challenges?
- Can you dedicate the required time without compromising other important aspects of your life?
- Are there other projects you could start that may fulfill your founders drive and create change in the world, with much greater ease, such as starting a non-profit or social benefit business?
Step 5: Consider Your Skillset and Fellow Founders
Running a community is multidimensional. From managing finances to resolving conflicts, there’s a wide range of skills required.
- Do you have experience in community building or leadership roles?
- Are you good at fundraising, management, or public relations?
- If not, are you prepared to learn, or can you bring in skilled individuals to help?
Remember that no ONE starts a community. By its nature, a community requires you to collaborate deeply with the other members. Very early on, the project will no longer become “your community” but rather “the community you are helping to create” along with a handful of fellow founders.
This switch from solo founder to a founder group is a critical step in the process. Can you visualize yourself making this transition? Do you have some folks in mind who could join as fellow founders?
Yana Ludwig’s recommendation is a founding group of between 3-8 people with a diversity of skills to see the project to success. She shares how starting a community is like starting a non-profit, business, getting married, and taking a long personal growth course all with the same group of people.
“Most of us have folks in our lives we might trust to start a business with, but are they the same people we trust to do intense and vulnerable relational and personal growth work with? And are those people the same ones with whom we share deep passions and an analysis of what the world needs? And do they want to live in the same places you are interested in living?”
Step 6: Explore Hidden Motivations Before You Start an Intentional Community
Embarking on the quest to start an intentional community necessitates a deep dive into your personal motivations. It’s time for an ego check. Begin by questioning the impulses behind this drive:
- Are you seeking control or the fulfillment of a personal ideal?
- Is it the appeal of a leadership role that excites you, or is it the genuine collaboration and shared living?
- Could there be unresolved issues within yourself that you’re trying to address by creating a new community?
It’s crucial to explore these questions because your motivations will profoundly affect the creation and sustainability of the community. If the foundations are based on egoistic desires rather than communal well-being, the community may struggle to thrive.
As Yana Ludwig shares, there’s a health and unhealthy ego:
“There is definitely such a thing as a healthy ego: having strong enough self-esteem that you can navigate challenges without always coming away bruised and shaken. This is GOOD. However, you want to be very careful with this. If your motivation for starting a community is that you like the sound of “founder” next to your name, or you believe yours is the one true vision that will save the world . . . that’s not a healthy ego.”
Is your’s the one true vision that will save the world?
Check that ego!
Step 7: Craft a Compelling Community Vision
At the same time, a strong vision is necessary for a community to flourish.
Your vision has to be strong enough to motivate you through all the highs and lows that come when you start an intentional community. It has to be strong enough not just to motivate you, but to motivate others to give up significant time and resources to help make it happen.
Take some time as you ponder your decision to start an intentional community to craft an initial vision. Open a fresh document on your computer, pull out your favorite journal, get a photo collage going…
Crafting a compelling vision involves:
- Articulating the Purpose: Clearly define what your community stands for. What are its core values and missions? How does it serve its members and possibly the broader society?
- Visualizing the Outcome: Imagine the day-to-day life in your community. What activities are people engaging in? How do they interact, make decisions, and support one another?
- Inspiring Others: A community is not a solo venture. Your vision should resonate with others, inspiring them to join and contribute. Communicate your dream in a way that others can see themselves as part of it.
Remember, a strong vision can guide you through the complexities of starting and maintaining an intentional community. It’s the shared dream that keeps the community aligned and focused during challenging times. It is also a beacon that attracts the right people—those who will enrich the community with their presence and participation.
The Middle Way? Joining a Group in Early Formation
For those torn between the formidable task of starting from scratch and the hesitancy to step into a well-established community, there’s a middle path: joining a group that’s in the early stages of formation. This option can be a unique opportunity to experience the best of both worlds—you have the chance to influence the development of the community’s culture, governance, and policies without bearing the full weight of the founding process.
In these nascent stages, you can contribute to the DNA of the community, shaping its trajectory while collaborating with others who are also new to the group. You’ll be able to witness and participate in the growth and molding of the community’s vision, perhaps avoiding the rigidity that sometimes characterizes older, more established communities. This path requires less of the pioneering spirit needed to start an intentional community from the ground up, yet it provides a fertile ground for innovation and the satisfaction of co-creation without a complete surrender to pre-existing norms.
Finding forming communities can be a little more difficult than already established ones. Search for social media groups and discussion boards related to your location or community focus.
We Need Founders Who Can Start an Intentional Community
By this point, if you are still saying to yourself… Nope, none of the above is discouraging me. I’m going to start a community to realize this vision inside of me.
Well then, you go for it!
This world needs what you have in mind to create. We need more thriving communities.. Consider this article a gentle reality check, an assessment of the wisdom of your decision. It’ll be the first of many such tests to come.
The road to founding a community is paved with challenges and triumphs alike, but your unwavering determination can lead to something truly transformative—not just for you, but for all those who will find solace, strength, and connection within the community you create.
Your vision is a gift to a world in dire need of communal harmony and shared purpose. Now, with clarity and courage, step forward and bring that vision to life.
CommunityFinders is here to help. We are beginning to develop programs to assist community founders, in addition to our on-going programs for finders. Stay tuned for more information.
And of course, big shout out to Yana Ludwig and her recently published book Building Belonging. Go read it if you haven’t already!
Share with us in the comments if you are thinking of starting a community or already have one underway. Let us know what challenges you are facing, what questions keep you up at night, and how you can be supported to make your big ambitious project a wild success.
Get the worksheet to help you find a community that’s a fit for your needs.