Decision Making in Practice: Leadership Decisions and Majority-Rule Democracy
Ideally, the process used for decision making in an intentional community is based on the values of the group. To that end, a number of values-defining questions need to be asked, when settling on which process to use. Does everyone who will be affected by a decision need to be involved in the decision-making process? If so, to what degree?
The quality of the decisions produced by the process also needs to be examined periodically. Are the decision makers and all those affected by the decisions satisfied with the results? If not, what are the possible consequences? Is the intent of the original proposals being accomplished? Are the underlying issues being addressed? Are resources being used appropriately?
There are three basic forms of decision-making processes (with many variations on each) used in intentional communities today: consensus, decisions by a leader or group of leaders (or elders), and majority-rule democracy. Any of these methods can get the job done, and the quality of the process has become increasingly important to groups. Most intentional communities want to create a sense of interconnectedness and well-being. This goal is either helped or hindered both by specific decisions and by the process of how decisions are made and implemented.
It takes specific skills to create a process that empowers members and helps them to do their best, no matter what decision-making model is used. Facilitation, communication, and conflict resolution skills are at the top of the list.
What follows is a brief exploration of two decision-making systems: decisions by leaders/elders and majority voting, as used by two specific communities. I will not be covering consensus, as that was done in the article preceding this one, “Consensus Basics.”
Decision Making by a Group of Leaders/Elders, at Padanaram Community
Decision making by a single leader or group of leaders is a system used by groups and cultures around the globe. Padanaram Settlement is a spiritually oriented income-sharing community located in rural Indiana. The community was founded by Daniel Wright in 1966. Daniel, 80 years old as of this writing, continues as the spiritual leader and remains active in Padanaram’s many businesses. Although Daniel was initially the sole leader of the community, under his guidance and nurturing, others have grown into leadership areas.
The community does not take a formal approach to decision making; rather, it guides itself by the principle, “Wisdom is our leader; truth is our guide.” At Padanaram, leaders are not chosen by vote or consensus. They evolve rather than are selected. The various concerns of the community—schools, work areas, kitchen, farm, and public relations, to name a few, are governed by those leaders who have the expertise and experience in the particular area. Those in leadership positions have a group working with them. The group works together as a “mindpool” to find answers. The leader within the group makes the ultimate decision after considering the input of other workers in the group.
The two weekly meetings are open to the entire village and attendance is not mandatory. The Sunday night meeting is for sharing spiritual experiences and insights. The Wednesday night discussion meeting is totally open to whatever topics come up. It is a public forum in which every person has a voice and a right to speak. Typical subjects include economics, the growth of the school, the farm, religion, and philosophy. It is also a time when people bring up problem areas.
“Conflict resolution and [meeting] facilitation are not common words within Padanaram,” says long-time community member Rachel Summerton. “It is not formal—it is a group of friends discussing family problems.” The community uses five principles to guide its decision making process: “As one would that others do, do unto them.” “Hold all things in common; count nothing one’s own.” “Distribution to each according to the need.” “Of one who has much, much is required.” And, “One that won’t work shall not eat.”
Decision Making by Majority-Rule Democracy, at Bryn Gweled Homesteads
Majority-rule democracy is a well-known system of governance in which decisions are made by voting. More than half of the participants must be in agreement for a motion to pass.
Bryn Gweled Homesteads is a community located in suburban Philadelphia that was established in 1940. Its goal from the beginning has been simple—to be a friendly suburban neighborhood.
Decisions are made at Bryn Gweled by voting. The community uses a modified version of Robert’s Rules of Order to govern the process. If the majority is close to 50/50 or there is strong disagreement by even a small minority, the motion is likely to be either tabled or rejected after a motion to reconsider. Members then discuss the issue more thoroughly for a month to several months until they are ready to bring it to a vote again. Bryn Gweled uses the motion to reconsider often; in the words of community member Robert Ewbank, they do so in order to “É ensure a bare majority would not create a disgruntled minority.”
Committees play an integral part in the organization of the Bryn Gweled. Of the 23 committees, three are elected—nominating, membership, and housing. Each committee is empowered to carry out its individual work; however, no major decision is made without the consent of the Bryn Gweled membership.
Bryn Gweled has an elected seven-member board of directors that serves to set the agenda and facilitate the monthly business meeting. Because attendance at meetings is usually below 80 percent, important issues are handled by written ballot. Amendments to bylaws require a two-thirds vote by written ballot. A written ballot is also used with very important or controversial issues. Almost all Bryn Gweled members vote on items requiring the use of written ballots.
Membership decisions are made by secret ballot. An applicant must first attend at least two business meetings, meet with the membership committee, and complete a written application. A Bryn Gweled member is then appointed to assist the applicant in visiting the 73 member families. This process takes at least three months, and can take as long as the applicant wishes. The applicant must receive affirmation by 80 percent of those voting. Long-time community member John Ewbank considers both the deliberate thoroughness and the personal connections made during the membership application process to be the major reasons why the community has been able to function as satisfactorily as it has for 60 years.
Rebecca L’Abbe lives at Shannon Farm, a rural land-trust community at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains in Afton, Virginia, founded in 1974.