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Introduction        How many People is Enough?        Why do so few People Come?

Introduction

The importance of participation by all co-op members in Co-op decision making, work, and community can't be overstated. Commitment to community and involvement in community is the major difference between co-ops and other types of housing. When you live in a co-op, you not only live in a nice apartment at a great price, you live in a community. In order for a co-op community to work, all members must participate on some level--bringing their skills and interests to the group to benefit the entire co-op.

Participation by its individual members towards group goals is what builds co-op community. A co-op exists because a group of people committed to affordable, quality housing and community building came together to create the co-op. Their vision for the co-op and their pooled efforts, skills, and enthusiasm made the co-op happen. The continuing efforts of co-op members keep the co-op going!

Co-op members don't need fancy degrees or financial or legal expertise to contribute to their co-op. The only prerequisites for being an important co-op contributor are enthusiasm and the willingness and capacity to listen and work with others. There are some co-op tasks that require a certain amount of training or experience (such as helping to create the co-op's budget, keeping the co-op books, or helping to select new co-op members). Your trainer will assist any co-op member who would like training in these areas.

Co-ops buck the trend towards increasing isolation and individualism. Co-ops depend on group effort, pooling group resources, and making group decisions. Building community in the places we live is a major goal of co-op housing.

Creating a co-op where everyone=s contributions are valued and received is a co-op's ultimate challenge. Individual participation is the key to co-op community, affordability, and smooth operations. When you pick up your keys to your co-op apartment, ask about what committess the co-op has, and offer to join one or two. It's sometimes intimidating to be the new person in a group, but your contributions are guaranteed to be appreciated!

How Many People is Enough?

How many people should come to a co-op's annual meeting? How many should show up to your regular board meeting? Almost every Board member that we know of would answer this question in the same way: "Not Enough."

But how much is enough? It would be nice to think that every member who cares about your co-op will come to meetings and participate, but that doesn't happen. Some members are busy with their church or little league; others are tired after a long day; many are single parents of small children and find it very hard to get to meetings.

If no one shows up, of course, you've got a real problem. Someone has to do the work, and that "someone" shouldn't be just the same old people, or you will wake up one day and those same old people will have moved on, and there won't be anyone left.

So how much is enough? The easiest answer is that if there is important work that is not getting done because there is no one to do it, then you don't have enough participation. But at most co-ops, the reality is not that stark. The work is getting done, but the leaders aren't too happy about having to do all of themselves, year in and year out. They would like some help, or at least some gratitude.

When you get frustrated enough about your co-op's lack of participation, you can go out and try to recruit new active members (see the last Groundbreaker for more on building your organization). But there is also a ceiling that it's hard to rise above. When you hit that ceiling, all the doorknocking and worrying in the world won't help you.

So to help you figure out if your co-op is in need of serious organization building, and if recruiting new active members is really possible, ARCH offers the following 3-step questionaire.

First, how much participation is there? Usually, more people are participating than you think. Answer these questions, but don't "double count" anyone. How many people come to most Board meetings?

Other than your regulars, how many people have "dropped in" on Board meetings during the last year?

How many people work on committees but don't come to Board meetings?

During the last year, how many people have worked on their own special projects, such as baking a cake for a special event, taking care of children during meetings, etc?

Now add 'em up. TOTAL participation in the last year:

Second, how much participation do you need? Tenant organizations go through a fairly predictable life cycle, and the amount of participation needed depends on where you are in your cycle. Take a look at the stages below.

1. Most groups start at position 1. Their building has a problem --usually either with the landlord, or the old tenant council. The old leaders might have been there a long time, and be seen as out of touch with most residents.

2. Some new leadership emerges -- people who want things to be better and think they can make it happen.

3. The new leaders are full of energy and high hopes. They make a lot of plans and get in touch with neighborhood and city-wide organizations.

At this point, there is a fork in the road.

4. Some people are wonderful dreamers, but lack follow-through. And when it comes time to set up meetings, write proposals, and knock and doors, they don't have the time. Their organization usually dies quickly, because it didn't have much of a foundation in the first place.

5. Other people have the time and the energy, and they suddenly find themselves very busy. They might be having meetings every night, and they begin to feel close to other participants. They are working on multiple projects at the same time, and it might be hard to keep everything juggled. They are working hard, and they usually succeed in gaining some control with respect to the old Tenant Council or the landlord. This is the Golden Age of the organization -- hard work with real rewards.

6. Eventually, the Golden Age ends. The organization accomplishes (or fails to accomplish) its big goal, and some of their leaders have to start going back to their lives. There is less participation now, because less participation is needed. People who stay very involved feel some dissappointment that not as many people participate anymore.

Then there is another fork in the road.

7. Some organizations can adjust to the new level of activity. A small group of leaders keeps the organization going from week to week.

7a. From time to time, there is a crisis (or a party) and they bring in others for a brief flurry of activity. Then things die down again.

8. Other organizations have trouble at this point. For personality reasons or otherwise, most members don't stay involved, leaving one or two people who do all the work. These leaders resent the people who have left, and don't bring in new people. The organization essentially becomes one or two leaders and no followers. Eventually, new leaders may come in and the cycle starts all over again.

9. Finally, some other organizations crumble at this point. No one stays involved, and the organization is disbanded.

Now, figure out what is a realistic level of participation for your stage of development.

If you're in one of the high stages -- 3, 4, or 7a -- you should aim for a brief time with high involvement. You could be seeing about 10% of your residents once a month or more, and you should aim for active involvement from at least 10 members.

If you're in one of the stable stages --2, 6, or 7-- you can expect a low, but consistent level of participation. You should have a core of at least four people who meet on a monthly basis, and your total participation (which you figured out above) should be about 10% of your residents.

If your organization is in either a high or a stable stage, and participation is lower than suggested, don't panic. Each development is different. Are you able to get your work done? Are you bringing in new members, even if slowly? If so, you are covering your bases. If not, maybe it is time to spend some energy building your organization.

If you're in Section 8 (stagnating), you have your work cut out for you. In the long run, organizations with just one or two active participants do not last. It's time to start knocking on doors, and otherwise building your organization. Call ARCH or another community organization for help.

If you're in any of the other stages --1, 5, or 9 -- your organization is on the edge of extinction. If your organization is a tenant council, letting it fold is not necessarily bad. If there is not enough energy to keep it going, best to get out of the way and let others take a shot at it. On the other hand, if you are a resident-controlled development, your organization has some important responsibilities. Letting your organization go could mean letting your housing go -- so take a minute to call your co-op's developer, or another community organization. It's time to ask for help.

Why do so few people come?

"Cooperitis" is a disease that strikes co-ops and keeps people from coming to meetings. Leading Symptoms are:

bulletMeetings that last for more than two hours
bulletConsensus by exhaustion
bulletConfusion over what (if any) decision has been made
bulletFrustration that Anothing ever gets done@
bulletBurn-out

What causes these symptoms?

bulletMeetings that last for more than two hours:

Board is acting as a committee: getting into too many nitty gritty details that should have been worked out by the committee or individual presenting a proposal and included in the proposal before ever reaching the board level.

Board accepts too many agenda items

Facilitator AND group members do not have a clear sense of meeting process (including when to call for consensus, how amendments can be introduced, how to address motions).

Board members have not received adequate information prior to the meeting (written proposals, minutes, etc.)

Job of Timekeeper isn't taken seriously by group and/or by timekeeper

bulletConsensus by Exhaustion

Board is bound to consensus by by-laws, but doesn't embrace the values of consensus, or practices it in such a way that it is less democratic than voting. Or, Board doesn't distinguish between consent and perfect agreement.

bulletConfusion over what (if any) decision has been made

formal decision making process isn't followed

proposals and resolutions are not in writing, and are not signed when approved

minutes are not timely and accurate

bulletFrustration that nothing ever gets done

Everything above

Board doesn't reflect back on accomplishments

Board members & Board as a whole don't receive positive feedback

bulletBurnout

EVERTYTHING ABOVE!!!

 

Treatment of Cooperitis

Well, you guessed it, there's no easy cure. But there are many things that every Board can do to prevent or treat this debilitating illness. Here are some suggestions:

bulletRemember, the job of the Board is to make decisions. Delegate when necessary!
bulletPick or develop a clear meeting process, and stick with it.
bulletCreate structure to help with clarity: proposal forms with signature lines, report forms, etc.
bulletPut more time into meeting planning: completing & distributing proposals, minutes, agendas.
bulletLook at larger framework: does your committee & board structure work for you?
bulletLook at even larger framework: We're learning to do something that's rare in this world: working cooperatively. Give yourself a break!
 

 

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Revised: October 02, 2003.

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