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3 Reasons Why Intentional Communities Fail

Published March 6, 2024
Written by Cynthia Tina

There are three main reasons why intentional communities fail.

In a nutshell they are…

  1. Inexperienced founders
  2. Lack of resources
  3. Challenging interpersonal dynamics

This article will help you, as a potential community founder, avoid these pitfalls and increase the odds of your community’s success.  

While the majority of utopian experiments of the past have not survived to the present day, there is a modern surge of interest in community living. New intentional communities are starting up all the time — armed with the lessons of the past, digital tech, new project management tools, and the same old drive to create an alternative way of life. 

Whether you are thinking of starting an ecovillage, cohousing, permaculture, spiritual, tiny house village, coliving, housing coop, or other type of community — take heed and don’t repeat these common mistakes!

Why Intentional Communities Fail

It’s a well known fact that many intentional communities fail. Most fail in their early years, often before a group has acquired property. 

“90% of communities fail” is an often quoted stat from Creating a Life Together, a book by Diana Leafe Christian

“… Most aspiring ecovillages and community groups — probably 90 percent — never get off the ground; their envisioned communities never get built. They can’t find the right land, don’t have enough money, or get mired in conflict. Often they simply don’t understand how much time, money, and organizational skill they’ll need to pull off a project of this scope.”

—Diana Leafe Christian

However, the exact failure rate is difficult to pinpoint because there hasn’t been extensive research into the survival rate of intentional communities, especially when it’s just a small group with a pipe dream. 

But we can look to well-studied statistics from the business industry for clues. According to Investopedia, “Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more.” They cite various reasons why businesses fail:

  • money running out
  • being in the wrong market
  • a lack of research
  • bad partnerships
  • ineffective marketing
  • not being an expert in the industry

Starting a business is similar to starting an intentional community, and it can fail for many of the same reasons.

(Of course, most of us communitarians don’t want to practice the same kind of extractive business mindset that dominates the mainstream… but still…) 

Starting a community is like starting a business, PLUS doing so with people you will eventually live with, often unpaid for years, and with frequent resistance from housing and financial institutions.

When the late-founder of Damanhur community in Italy was asked what the secret was to the success of their 600+ person community, he said, “Think like a business,” which is a surprising response coming from such an alternative and spiritual community. 

This perspective gives us insight into the core of why intentional communities fail the sheer difficulty of meeting an inspirational vision with grounded reality. 

Grappling with the monetary and practical logistics of building a project within an institutional landscape that’s designed for individualism over collectivism is tough. Add to this challenging interpersonal dynamics, and a nascent community can quickly spiral down. 

Here’s some deeper analysis into why intentional communities fail, plus steps you can take as a founder to avoid these common pitfalls. 

For deeper treatment of historical intentional communities and their demise, Aeon has an excellent article here

So let’s get into it.

What are the reasons communities fail?

And what can we do about it?

Mission Peak Village, Why Intentional Communities Fail
Photo, Mission Peak Village

#1 Reason Why Intentional Communities Fail:

Inexperienced Founders

Starting an intentional community is a journey filled with optimism and dreams of a shared future. However, one of the first hurdles many encounter is the challenge of inexperience. This section explores how to navigate the complexities of founding an intentional community… especially if you’ve never done it before!

Are you a pioneer or a settler? 

Just like any venture, a community moves through phases of development. Jan Martin Bang explores the life cycle of intentional communities in depth in his book Growing Eco-Communities

Right now, we will focus on two specific roles in the development process of communities — pioneers and settlers. 

  • Pioneers = the type of person suited to start a new community 
  • Settlers = those who join the project later, once it’s been established

In Creating a Life Together, author Diana Leafe Christian explains:

​”Two kinds of people are usually attracted to forming communities pioneers and settlers.

Pioneers take risk and leap into the unknown.

They start the group, do the research, find the land. Settlers wait and see if the pioneers group can pull it off. They come in later when more is known about the project, and when there is something more visible to join. 

Settlers need the pioneers to break trail for them, 

Pioneers need settlers to join when its time to raise money and make the project happen. (..)

Forming community groups need both.”

If you are considering starting a community, spend some time carefully considering which role you feel you are most suited to hold. 

Keep in mind that founding a community isn’t the same as seeing it through for the long-haul. Indeed, many community founders end up leaving their communities after the initial development phase is over. 

Again, we can draw from the business world where the statistics are stark. More than 50 per cent of founders are replaced as CEOs by the time a start-up is in its third year. Most are gone long before a company goes public.

The energy, skills, and character necessary for the start-up phase of a business or a community shifts as the project matures. 

Skills that a community founder will need

A new community will need some or all of these skills in their founding group. You’d do well to attract people with skills in the areas where you or your group may be lacking. 

This list below is from Yana Ludwig and is reviewed in depth during her course on How to Start an Intentional Community

Qualities of a Founder:

  • Fearless about realities 
  • Empathetic & listens well 
  • Good communicator 
  • Inspiring 
  • Humble/can set aside ego 
  • “Do whatever it takes” vibe 
  • Likes people 

  • Has a head for numbers
  • Persistence/patience 
  • In touch with values/self-aware 
  • Flexible, can grow/change 
  • Kindness, generosity 
  • Resilience 
  • Even tempered 
  • Risk assessor… and risk taker 

Big Picture Skills: 

  • Organizational skills 
  • Visioning 
  • Planning 
  • Big picture thinking 
  • Writing & Speaking 
  • Tracking of details 

 

Social Skills: 

  • Networking 
  • Team and trust building 
  • Facilitation 
  • Governance experience 
  • Conflict management 
  • Mentoring

Physical Skills: 

  • Sourcing financing 
  • Spreadsheets & budgeting 
  • Financial management 
  • Business planning 
  • Legal savvy 
  • Understands systems of $$ 

Economic Skills: 

  • Construction (if doing) 
  • Maintenance 
  • Agriculture (if doing) 
  • Real estate development 
  • Land Use planning 

Founders: Try out being a settler first

The missing part of the founders vs. settlers concept is that pioneers would do well to try out being settlers first.

It’s comparatively easy to have a vision for a community compared to having the fortitude and skills necessary to see it through to completion. 

Co-founder of Red Earth Farms, an intentional community in Missouri, shares her advice when someone says they want to start a community:

“Now usually my first piece of advice goes something like this: ‘It is a LOT of work to start an intentional community. A LOT. If you can possibly find a community already out there that seems to be mostly aligned with what you envision for yourself, then I recommend you try out living there. Just give it a try. And by the way, intentional communities are an incredibly varied phenomena; each has its own different flavor. So if you have the means and resources to travel and visit different ones before settling down, then I totally recommend that.’”

You can dramatically increase the chances of your community’s success (especially for large projects or costly projects) by gaining experience in existing communities. 

So go visit other intentional communities. Try out living in one for a few months or years if you can. You may even be surprised to learn that a community that’s similar enough to your vision already exists. Or you decide you are ready to settle after truely learning how much it takes to get a community started.

Best is to speak with other community founders, both the successful and unsuccessful, to learn from their experiences. When it comes time to build a forming group, partner with or hire those who have more experience than you. 

The path to building communities is (fortunately) more well-trodden than you may realize. Benefit from those who have gone before! 

Not sure where to gain wisdom from other founders?

A few resources to get started:

Join Forces with Other Community Founders in the Early Days

Another element to emphasize in the founders vs. settlers concept, is that BOTH roles are needed

Too often you’ll find an “intentional community” that’s really just the home of an individual or couple with a big dream (or distorted idea of what community looks like). 

Community requires the active involvement of multiple people and the earlier they are involved the better. 

Don’t be the founder that’s slaving away on their vision statement in a room by themselves. Don’t already have the homes designed and even the entire village laid out before another single person is onboard!

Instead, take one of the first steps to starting a regenerative community project by gaining experience — lots of experience. Then partner with others to form a group, and lastly go after funding or land. 

It takes a special kind of founder who can set up the land and infrastructure first and come out of it at the end with a healthy community that they are still part of. It’s doable, and arguably faster. But many successful communities first began with the commitment of a small group. This group formalized a vision, built up their culture, and later acquired property to live in together. 

The Community Founders Circle is an excellent resource for anyone looking for fellow founders.

This membership program connects you with other community founders, offering a platform to share experiences, challenges, and victories. Plus, it provides access to a wealth of resources, workshops, and tools specifically designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the complexities of community building successfully.

Do you have what it takes to be a founder?

On average a new community project will take 2-7 years to become established, especially if you’re working with raw land and no infrastructure. As a part of the core founding group, you can expect the workload to be the equivalent of a part-time to full-time job. Generally, this is unpaid work. 

So before you set out to create a new community… Ask yourself these questions. Answer honestly:

  • Do I have the resources to sustain 2-7 years of unpaid work at least part-time?
  • Have I visited enough communities to be sure nothing similar to what I want to create already exists? 
  • Can I see myself compromising on parts of my vision (in terms of location, people, or design) should a more convenient community opportunity open up?
  • Am I sure the desire to be a community founder isn’t just my ego?

If you hesitated on any one of those questions, then strongly consider joining an established community or at least gaining more experience in existing communities first.

Founder of La Ecovilla
Photo, founder of La Ecovilla Community

#2 Reason Why Intentional Communities Fail:

Lack of Resources

One of the most common stumbling blocks for intentional communities is the underestimation of resources required. 

This isn’t just about money — though financial solvency is crucial. Resources encompass time, human capital, physical assets, and the emotional and mental bandwidth to tackle unexpected challenges.

Imagine this: you’ve got a vision of a lush permaculture garden that feeds your entire community. But, without adequate tools, expertise, and hands to till the soil, that dream remains a patch of untended earth. 

The same goes for building infrastructure, from homes to communal spaces — without the necessary funds, materials, and skilled labor, progress stalls.

Moreover, resources aren’t just about starting up; they’re about sustainability. 

Many communities kick off with enthusiasm, but find themselves financially strapped when it comes to ongoing costs like maintenance, improvements, and even basic utilities. This financial strain can lead to tough choices, compromising the very ideals the community was built upon.

It’s essential, then, for community founders to have a clear, realistic plan for resource acquisition and management. This includes budgeting for the unforeseen, cultivating a network of skilled individuals willing to contribute, and perhaps most importantly, creating a flexible, adaptive financial model that can withstand the ebbs and flows of community life.

Remember, the success of your community isn’t just measured by what you build, but by how sustainably you can maintain and grow it.

So, before you lay the first stone, ensure your resource plan is as solid as the foundation you wish to build upon.


Navigating Funding Sources for New Communities

Securing adequate funding is critical for the birth and sustained growth of an intentional community. Fortunately, there are multiple avenues to explore, each with its own benefits and considerations.

  • Grants and Non-Profit Status: Many communities qualify for grants due to their educational, environmental, or social objectives. Obtaining non-profit status can open doors to a variety of grants and public funding opportunities designed to support community-focused projects. Researching and applying for these grants requires effort and perhaps expertise in grant writing, but the payoff can significantly boost your community’s financial health without the need to repay funds.

  • Crowdfunding and Social Financing: In an era where collective support for meaningful projects is at an all-time high, crowdfunding platforms offer a way to gather financial support directly from the public. These platforms can also serve as marketing tools, spreading awareness and attracting like-minded individuals. Additionally, social financing options, such as community bonds or loans from social credit institutions, are designed to support projects that have a positive social impact.

  • Membership Fees and Investments: Depending on the nature of your community, initial and ongoing membership fees can be a substantial source of income. These fees should be set thoughtfully to balance accessibility with the financial needs of the community. Carefully consider the role of investors in the project, what kinds of returns they can realistically expect and how much decision making power they will hold (especially if they don’t intend to live onsite).

  • Partnerships and Collaborations: Partnering with businesses, educational institutions, or non-profits can provide both financial support and resources. These partnerships might involve sponsoring specific projects, providing materials or expertise, or collaborative use of land and facilities. Networking and building relationships with potential partners can unlock unique opportunities and mutual benefits.
Residents at Santa Fe Cohousing
Residents at Santa Fe Cohousing (not having a challenging moment 😉 )

#3 Reason Why Intentional Communities Fail:

Challenging Interpersonal Dynamics

Ironically, the most significant reason intentional communities fail isn’t due to lack of land or financing but challenging interpersonal dynamics. Even with all resources at your disposal, the human element can make or break your project. Conversely, a community with a robust, healthy cooperative culture can navigate through numerous obstacles, turning potential failures into stepping stones for success.

Building a Strong Community Culture

Creating a strong community culture is not about avoiding conflict but about managing it constructively. Here are some strategies for fostering a positive and resilient group culture:

  • Clear Governance Structures: Implementing clear, agreed-upon governance structures from the outset can prevent many conflicts. Whether it’s a consensus-based approach, democratic voting, or a hybrid system, having a system in place ensures that every member knows how decisions are made, contributing to a sense of fairness and transparency.

  • Effective Conflict Resolution Mechanisms: Conflict is inevitable in any group setting. However, having a predefined conflict resolution mechanism helps manage disagreements constructively before they escalate. This could include mediation processes, conflict resolution committees, or regular community meetings dedicated to airing grievances in a structured, supportive environment.

  • Regular Communication Channels: Open lines of communication are crucial for maintaining a healthy community. This might involve regular community meetings, feedback sessions, or digital communication platforms where members can share concerns, ideas, and updates. Ensuring everyone has a voice and feels heard is vital for collective harmony.

  • Shared Values and Vision: Regularly revisiting and affirming the community’s shared values and vision can help align members and reduce conflicts. Workshops, retreats, and informal gatherings can be valuable for reinforcing these foundational elements and fostering a sense of unity and purpose.

  • Emphasis on Personal Growth and Development: Encouraging and providing resources for personal growth can enhance individual well-being and, by extension, the health of the community. This might include workshops on emotional intelligence, communication skills, and leadership development.

  • Transparent Financial Management: Many disputes arise from misunderstandings or disagreements about money. Keeping financial dealings transparent and involving the community in budgetary decisions can prevent such conflicts.

  • Building Trust and Relationships: Finally, the glue that holds everything together is the interpersonal relationships within the community. Creating spaces and opportunities for members to build trust and friendships ensures a resilient foundation for navigating the challenges of communal living.

Leveraging “The Cooperative Culture Handbook” for Community Success

For intentional communities aiming to cultivate a harmonious (as possible) and cooperative environment, The Cooperative Culture Handbook by Yana Ludwig and Karen Gimnig is a must-read.

This book distills the authors’ rich experience into practical advice, offering tools and exercises to enhance group dynamics, communication, and conflict resolution. It acts as a blueprint for creating a robust community culture, highlighting the significance of emotional intelligence, mutual respect, and collective problem-solving.

By incorporating the principles and practices suggested by Ludwig and Gimnig, community founders and members can significantly improve their chances of overcoming interpersonal challenges and fostering a thriving, cooperative living environment.



Embarking on Your Community-Building Journey

Starting an intentional community is no small feat. 

By this point you have a sense for the significant hurdles of inexperienced founders, lack of resources, and challenging interpersonal dynamics.

However, with the right mindset, preparation, and resources, the journey to start a community can be incredibly rewarding. Remember, the path to building a successful community is paved with the lessons learned from those who have walked it before you. So lean on existing expertise!

For those ready to take the plunge, remember that you’re not alone. 

The Community Founders Circle is an excellent resource for anyone embarking on this exciting journey.

This membership program connects you with other community founders, offering a platform to share experiences, challenges, and victories. It provides access to a wealth of resources, workshops, and tools specifically designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the complexities of community building successfully.

The creation of an intentional community is a profound act of envisioning a different way of living together. It’s about crafting a space where shared values and collective aspirations can flourish. 

With determination, a willingness to learn, and the support of networks like the Community Founders Circle, you have what it takes to transform your vision into a thriving, sustainable community.

Share your experiences in the comments below. Why else do you see that communities fail? What can be done to support new communities?

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5 Comments
  1. Mac Thomson

    It seems to me that this article would be pretty relevant to all intentional communities. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Noah

    Great read – thanks for bringing together this informationCynthia!

    Reply
    • Cynthia

      You’re welcome! Thanks Noah

      Reply
  3. Allen Green

    Very well researched, friendly phrased, deep and wide perspective summed up remarkably well. As a old universiy teacher, I read this article an A+ document to keep for constant reflection.

    Reply
    • Cynthia

      Thank you Allen! Glad you enjoyed.

      Reply

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Cynthia Tina

Hi! I’m Cynthia.

I’ve visited 150+ intentional communities — ecovillages, cohousing, coops, spiritual, permaculture, & more types of community. I created CommunityFinders to help you on your community journey. How is your journey going? How can I help?

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