Principles for Intentional Community

Natural Community
esterday I reported on my visit to Whole Village, an Intentional Community near where I live, and in that report I described briefly the principles that community is guided by in its decisions and operations.

I’ve heard and read about similar statements of principles for other Intentional Communities, and wondered if it would be possible to create a generic set of principles for such communities, or at least for those whose objectives include being a model of environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and a self-sufficient, progressive lifestyle.

The definition of an Intentional Community is

 a group of people who live and/or work together to achieve a common purpose or set of shared objectives, and who also share social values, passions or philosophy.

While most ICs are physical communities, they may be virtual, and while the best-known are 24/7 living communities, some are working-hours only. What differentiates them most from casual communities and ‘networks’ is the degree of commitment and time dedicated to making them work.

Here’s the list of Principles of Intentional Community that I came up with:

  1. Commitment to, and Action in Accordance with, Shared Values and Purpose: The members agree to articulate their shared values and shared purpose, and to strive, in everything they do, to live according to those values and to strive to achieve that purpose. These will of course be different for each IC. However, some values are implicit in the principles below. While I suppose there might be communities whose intent is to do something in contravention to the principles that follow, I think most people would probably characterize these as cults rather than ICs.
  2. Fair, Egalitarian, Participatory, Consensual Decision-Making and Dispute Resolution: ICs are different from hierarchical organizations and those who select ‘representatives’ to make decisions for the members. It takes more time to achieve consensus acceptable to all, rather than majority vote. It also takes a commitment from all members to understand the issues that must be decided, and to become skilled self-managers.
  3. Actions Based on Thorough Research and Knowledge: Many promising ICs have failed because they haven’t done their homework and hence made rash, uninformed, fatal decisions. 
  4. Cooperative and Collaborative Work: You can obtain great joy from working collaboratively with others, people you love and respect, but for some people in our individualistic society such work is foreign and difficult.
  5. Communication, Openness, Outreach and Connectedness: Members need to commit to transparency with those they live and work with, and with the larger communities within which they live and work. Many of these communication channels need to be actively created and supported — thy don’t happen automatically.
  6. Assessment of Member Readiness and Fit: There needs to be a process by which prospective members self-assess whether they are ready for membership, existing members can objectively assess their candidacy, and all can discuss openly whether the unique skills, passions and sense of purpose a new member brings to the community is a good fit with those of the current members.
  7. Common Ownership, Equitable Income and Wealth Distribution: The issue of private property and equity of wealth and income is always a thorny one in any social arrangement, and ICs are no different. I’m going to write more on this in a later article, but for now I would say, from what I’ve seen and read, that IC members need to give up the idea of private property (but not privacy) and commit to the principle that no member should be disproportionately wealthier than any other.
  8. Shared Responsibility and Acceptance of Interdependence: Following from principle #2 above, members need to acknowledge a responsibility to participate fully in the activities of the IC and not delegate that responsibility or authority to others. Likewise, the interdependence of members must be appreciated — every action (and inaction) of every member has consequences for the entire community.
  9. Mutual Respect and Trust: This one’s pretty obvious. Without respect and trust, which must be continuously earned and given, there can be no enduring relationship and hence no community.
  10. Non-Violence: Pacifist, but not passive.
  11. Non-Discrimination: This is another tricky principle that I’ll write more about in a future article. Some people see an IC as an opportunity to live more comfortably with “their own kind”. 
  12. Sustainability, Conservation, Simplicity, Sufficiency, Humility and Frugality: An IC provides an excellent opportunity to share costs and resources, and knowledge of how to live a more natural, simple and sustainable life, using practices such as permaculture, biodynamic agriculture, bioregionalism,Thomas Princen’s sufficiency practices and Jim Merkel’s radical simplicity practices, such as:
    • leaving the Earth as we found it, unhampered in its ability to sustain itself indefinitely,
    • consuming as little of the Earth’s resources as we need to be fully ourselves,
    • measuring our ‘success’ not by material wealth or GDP but by the quality of our lives (‘our’ meaning that of all creatures we share our ecosystems with) — health, well-being, happiness, learning, love, and
    • relearning to listen to the Earth, to pay attention, and to live in harmony as a part of it
  13. Self-Sufficiency: Most ICs, for economic or aesthetic reasons, are located away from cities and the resources that create dependency on centralized systems (the electrical grid, central heating, malls) in many modern neighbourhoods. The combination of space (for growing food and generating renewable energy) and collaboration (sharing skills and resources) allows ICs to be collectively self-sufficient, in part because of the interdependence of their members.
  14. Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Being a Model: ICs tend to attract creative, independent thinkers with the capacity and willingness to experiment with novel ways of doing things and, through mutual support, to be entrepreneurial, and hence to serve as models for modern societies that are, for the most part, inflexible, unimaginative, and slow to respond to change and new needs.
  15. Healthy Community: Away from most pollutants, not locked into a sedentary lifestyle, and informed of the dangers of chemicals in food, water, air and soil, and alternative and novel health treatments, ICs can be pioneers in self-management of personal health, and self-diagnosis and self-treatment of illness. And by incorporating exercise, relaxation and spiritual practices in their daily routines, they can be much healthier than average citizens.
  16. Continuous, Self-Directed Learning, Discovery and Competency Development: Just as a degree of autonomy is both a challenge and opportunity in self-managed health, it can also be a challenge and opportunity for self-directed learning, both for children and throughout life. Many ICs have adopted breakthrough educational programs based on the work of Steiner, Illich and Gatto, and through unschooling and Internet technologies and knowledge, and through members teaching and showing each other what they know, have taken responsibility and developed capacity for learning without the need for institutions.
  17. Optimization of Collective Happiness and Well-Being: What ultimately brings most people to ICs is dissatisfaction with the way they are living and making a living. ICs, through work-sharing and collective imagination, can let their members rediscover how to entertain themselves, how to play, how to have fun, and how to live joyously without a need for external stimulation. And sensitivity to each others’ feelings helps to build a collective, self-reinforcing sense of well-being and joy.
  18. Enabling Self-Realization and Self-Actualization: Even beyond comfort, health and happiness on the Maslow scale, ICs offer nearly unparalleled opportunity for their members to be more authentically human, more genuinely themselves. Being part of an integral community enables deep self-knowledge and, if it is in a natural setting, deep ecology and reconnection with one’s senses, instincts and all-life-on-Earth. I would argue that this is the only foundation for self-realization and self-actualization.

From this list, you can see how much more work and responsibility is vested in the individual members of Intentional Communities than is the case in most ‘neighbourhoods of convenience’. From my discussions, this workload can be anywhere from 10 to over 40 hours per week, depending on the individual community and the degree to which its members get their livelihood right within that community. Members need to know what they’re getting into — while I’d be prepared to invest 10 hours a week in an IC, I wouldn’t invest 40 — like most people I don’t want to work that hard, and I don’t think, if a community has the right members and stays faithful to these principles, it should be necessary to work that hard.

At the same time, acceptance and adherence to these principles is setting high expectations of a community’s members. Some might say it asks too much, and that this list should be stripped down to the principles that are absolutely essential to success and sustainability.

Personally, I think we’re past that stage. We urgently need models of a better way to live and make a living, and these principles, while they set a high standard of behaviour and performance, are not that demanding or arduous, and their successfuladoption could show the world just what is possible. If not Intentional Community, then what?

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6 Responses to Principles for Intentional Community

  1. Mike says:

    Perhaps the key to more intentional communities involves lowering the barriers to entry, just as (e.g.) Clay Shirky and numeous others speak about social networking and such lowering barriers to participation in political processes.For instance, I have probably a couple thousand books, and would get rid of them all tomorrow if I could have each scanned and made into a pdf which I could keep. I’ve thought about how much freedom I could gain if I could reduce my possessions down to a laptop and some clothes in a backpack.Like you, I don’t think I have the commitment to get into what is mostly a farming community. What might be appealing to both people like myself and people in communities is some sort of nomadic existence – where I could visit particular communities for days, weeks, maybe months at a time – and contribute via my own skills, and what I’ve learned from other communities.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Mike: Interesting…such a concept already exists. It’s called WWOOFing. You can check it out on There were some there from Germany when I was at Whole Village.

  3. Daisy Bond says:

    Members need to know what they’re getting into — while I’d be prepared to invest 10 hours a week in an IC, I wouldn’t invest 40 — like most people I don’t want to work that hard, and I don’t think, if a community has the right members and stays faithful to these principles, it should be necessary to work that hard.Huh.Maybe I’m confused by what you mean by “invest”…? But I can’t really imagine investing less than 40ish hours a week in the future IC where I’d like to live. Firstly there’s the fact that I think it would be great if at least some of the members were able to make a living via full-time in-community work (be that farming or anything else), and could see myself being such a member, in the right situation — are you not interested in having your primary “work” happen in/with a community? (In the right situation, of course: it would have to be both financially feasible and personally rewarding. But we’re dreaming here, so let’s imagine it is, or can be.)I think of community as being similar to marriage, but much bigger. Like a marriage amongst a group of people. How many hours a week would you be willing to “invest” in a marriage, to a person or group of people with whom you’re in love? Is it possible to quantify that? Shouldn’t the answer be, you know, as many as necessary, as many as possible? Shouldn’t that “work” be among your greatest joys? If not — if it feels like work, in the tense of tiring toil with no real point — you’re in the wrong marriage/community. Right? I would love to have the opportunity to invest full-time in the relationships, health, and basic sustenance of my forming community. I cannot imagine better, more rewarding work. It wouldn’t even be work, really: just the “work” of living.I think what you’re saying by “I don’t want to work that hard” is that you already have important work, which you don’t want to stop doing — right? You’re saying that you don’t have the time or energy to “work” thathard at something else, in addition to what you do now? If that is, indeed, what you’re saying, then my question is: which is more important to you, your current work or community? (You may have to choose one.) If the work of community could sustain you — bring you food and shelter, for example — would you be willing to do it? If not, why not?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Daisy: I’d like to spend virtually all my time in the right IC, but not ‘working’. If we do it right, if we consume only what we must, if we become self-sufficient so we don’t need to buy stuff from outside, I am convinced that, like indigenous cultures and wild creatures, we should only need to ‘work’ perhaps an hour a day or a day a week. The rest of the time we should be able to spend in play, in reflection, in recreation, in art etc. But then, I’m an idealist :-)

  5. LVTfan says:

    I’m puzzled by your #7 re: common ownership. It seems to me that whatever land and water are involved should be held in common, with individuals or families paying the community for what they take, but that beyond that, the home one builds, or how one furnishes it, or the clothes one chooses, or the amount one chooses to save or spend from one’s legitimate earnings, all ought to be private choices and private property. We’re all different — and evolving and growing — and measures which treat us as if we were fixed and interchangeable cogs in a wheel dehumanize us and limit us, and will ultimately produce discord rather than peace, prosperity and community satisfaction. I think Henry George had it right. You might explore the founding documents for Fairhope and Arden, both of which are roughly 100 years old and vital, though not exactly IC’s in the conventional sense — many of the residents don’t understand exactly *why* they work, but they are great places to live in community.If one’s workload is 10 hours a week, and one chooses to work 40, who is entitled to the fruits of those labors? How will the community be sustainable if one must give those fruits to others?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    LVTfan: It fascinates me how so many people’s sense of identity and human rights is bound up in the idea of private property and private enterprise. I don’t know if this is a uniquely Western phenomenon, but I think it’s a show-stopper — we need to relearn to attend to collective needs, and put our ‘individual’ tastes behind the interests of the community and of Gaia. One can be “nobody-but-oneself”, unique, free, individual, within oneself, through one’s beliefs actions and behaviours. It should require no property to reinforce or sustain that.

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