Two North American ecovillages — Earthaven in North Carolina and Dancing Rabbit in Missouri — have recently implemented new governance and decision-making methods. “As an admitted community governance nerd“, Diana Leafe Christian says, “I am fascinated by how communities govern themselves and make decisions, and how they innovate new methods when things don’t seem to be working right. I’d like to tell you about these, because they exemplify a growing trend among communities internationally to innovate new governance methods or try alternative ones.” Read about Earthhaven´s change of methods here. Read about Dancing Rabbit´s change of methods and more information about governance practices here.
Governance and decision-making are two different things. Governance is what the group makes decisions about, how they organize their different decision-making bodies (i.e., whole-group meetings and committees), and the responsibilities and decision-making authorities they assign to each. Decision-making is how they make these decisions and is part of governance. Consensus, majority-rule voting, and supermajority voting, for example, are decision-making methods. Sociocracy and Holacracy are whole governance structures that include decision-making methods.
Decision-Making at Earthaven
Last month, in June, 2014, Earthaven Ecovillage, where I live, changed its decision-making process radically. Many community members were so fed up with too-frequent blocking and “blocking energy” (threatening to block) that we threw out blocking altogether. We kept the consensus process discussing and modifying proposals — but replaced approving, standing aside, or blocking with a way to acknowledge those who don’t support the proposal, followed by a supermajority vote.
Here’s how our new method works. After much discussion and likely modifications of a proposal over at least two whole-community business meetings, when it’s time to decide the facilitator asks if anyone remains unfavorable to the proposal. If no one says they feel unfavorable to it, it passes right then and there.
However, if one or more members present don’t support the proposal, each is asked, one at a time, why they believe the proposal either violates Earthaven’s mission and purpose, or why passing it would be more harmful or dangerous for the community than choosing an alternative proposal or doing nothing.
Their comments are recorded in the minutes. This is followed by a minute of silence. The facilitator asks the question again, so anyone else who may now realize they don’t support the proposal for either of these reasons can say why. Their comments are recorded in the minutes. This minute of silence and the request for any more non-support comments is repeated a third time.
This part of our new process is not about making a decision. It’s about offering those who don’t support the proposal three more opportunities to influence others about the proposal before the vote is taken, and to give them a chance to be heard and acknowledged.
The facilitator then calls for a vote and counts the numbers of Yeses and Noes. There are three possible outcomes.
(1) If 85% or more say Yes to the proposal, it passes. That’s it — bang, done — passed.
(2) If less than 50% say Yes, the proposal does not pass. (Though its advocates can rewrite the proposal and try again in the future if they like.)
(3) But if the number of Yeses falls somewhere between 50% and 85%, the proposal does not pass — as there’s not enough support for it — but it’s not laid aside either. Rather, a few of the members who said No and a few who said Yes are required to participate in a series of solution-oriented meetings to create a new proposal to address the same issues. These meetings are arranged by the community’s four officers, and a facilitator is appointed.
If a new proposal is created in the series of meetings it is presented at the next business meeting and we start anew.
But if the advocates for and those against the first proposal do not create a new proposal, the first proposal comes back to the next business meeting for another vote. This time it passes if 66% or more say Yes.
What Motivated Earthaven’s Changes
The purpose of this proposal, according to its creators, was “to clarify and simplify our governance process so that it is more sustainable, fair and effective.” They wanted to give non-supporters of a proposal a chance to co-create a new one they could live with, while preventing what they described as “the gridlock and entrenched ‘stopping’ positions sometimes expressed by a few members.”
In my opinion this new “85% passes” method is the inevitable outcome of the “fed up” factor at Earthaven — a factor which motivated two previous changes in our community decision-making processes, and without which this proposal probably would never have passed at all.
For years Earthaven used what I call “consensus-with-unanimity” — meaning it takes 100% of people in a meeting (except stand-asides) to pass a proposal, and there is no recourse if someone blocks. In other words, in consensus-with-unanimity, anyone can block a proposal for any reason and no one can do anything about it.
At the same time we had several members who consistently blocked proposals most others wanted. One member’s “blocking energy” in response to specific proposals in meetings (and even to an idea mentioned in a conversation) had the effect of preventing many people from creating a proposal (or even talking about an idea) they knew this member would detest. Thus a few members held a power-over position in the group, because they could, and did, stop some things almost everyone else wanted. Sometimes call this is called “tyranny of the minority.”
Our many attempts to engage with these members — whole-group “Heartshares,” mediations, pleas by individuals and small groups to please stop blocking or threatening to block — didn’t make a difference. Our consistent blockers saw themselves as protecting the community, and protecting the Earth from the community. And while most of us knew people who block frequently may not be living in the right community, no one suggested that these folks should leave the community and join another group more aligned with their values.
The result was discouragement, demoralization, and dwindling meeting attendance. We especially missed the participation of our young people. When they first joined they were eager to participate in meetings, offering high energy and new ideas. But they’d become so discouraged they wouldn’t go to meetings anymore, and so most of our major decisions were made by folks over 50.
Earthaven’s First Two Decision-Making Changes.
In my opinion, our new “85% passes” method passed only because of the two previous changes we’d made in our decision-making process.
The first change, originating in 2007 and proposed in 2012, was to create criteria for a legitimate block and a way to test it. We said that for a block to be valid at least 85% or more members present should believe the proposal would violate Earthaven’s mission and purpose or be harmful or dangerous to the community if. However, if less than 85% believed this, the block would be declared invalid and the proposal would pass.
If we had up to four valid blocks, the next step would be to convene a series of solution-oriented meetings between proposal advocates and those who blocked to create a new proposal. But if they didn’t produce a new proposal, the original proposal would come back for a decision rule of consensus-minus-one. This meant that if only two people blocked the returned proposal, it would not pass.
Consensus-minus-one was not what the proposal creators and most community members wanted, as the original proposal had a 75% supermajority fallback. However, our most frequent blocker, who had blocked 10 times over a five-year period, said she could not support the proposal unless we replace the 75% fallback with consensus-minus-one. So the community agreed. It had taken the ad hoc governance committee two years to be even consider this proposal (as it required a shift away from the paradigm that 100% consensus is beneficial), and two more years before committee members got up the nerve to present the proposal in a business meeting. Then it took another year of high emotions in these meetings and many proposal revisions to agree on this truncated version. Those who advocated the proposal figured that passing the consensus-minus-one version was better than nothing.
(Over the next year we used this new method twice, each time declaring a block invalid because only a few members present thought the block was valid. However, with no validated blocks during this period we never convened any solution-oriented meetings.)
A year and a half later, in January, 2014, we passed a second change — to keep this method but replace the consensus-minus-one fallback with a supermajority vote of 61.8% —Phi in mathematics. This fallback vote would be used rarely, only after a series of solution-oriented meetings in which proposal advocates and blockers failed to create a new proposal. I believe the low number of 61.8% for a supermajority vote — the lowest I’ve ever heard of in the communities movement — was simply more backlash against our history of blocking.
(And as noted earlier, our third and latest decision-making change raised the fallback numbere from 61.8% to 66% if no new proposal is created.)
In my opinion, our first two first decision-making changes were like small levers, incrementally prying our community loose from feeling discouraged and intimidated by our consistent blockers.
Our first decision-making change in 2012, while arduous and hard won, allowed us to even imagine we could pass proposals most of us wanted, and gave us the ability, in literal decision-making power, to do so. And our second decision-making change in January, 2012 gave us even more decision-making to make new proposals.
I imagine people reading this who believe 100% consensus creates (or it should create) more harmony and trust in a group, and/or who’ve experienced 100% consensus working well in their community, may be appalled at Earthaven’s choice to replace this with voting. Yet, as we’ve incrementally changed our method over the last two years, we’ve reversed the percentages of people who feel discouraged and demoralized. For years now, many members felt disheartened about our decision-making process, while a few believed it was fine. But after this series of changes, a few members feel awful about it — certain that Earthaven has gone to hell in a handbasket — but most of us feel hopeful again.
Read the second part of this article (about the change of Dancing Rabbit) here