cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus
In my work with cooperative groups (water I've been swimming in professionally since 1987) I notice trends. In particular, where do groups struggle and what might help. Sometimes this leads to thinking about generic issues, such as communication, understanding consensus and navigating its challenges, meeting facilitation, diversity, and working with emotions (to name a few things that I offer concentrated assistance with).
I also specialize in organizational structure—right relationship between plenary and committees (or teams), and where the hot spots (and weak spots) are. I observe patterns, and I try to develop solutions to the challenges. In general I've come to the view that the big four committees that groups often need help with are:
Process—under which there are two potent subcommittees: Facilitation and Heart (offering assistance to members in interpersonal tension who are not able to find their way through it on their own).
Participation (non-monetary contributions to the well-being and maintenance of the community)
I have written about all of these previously in this blog (you can search by key word). Today I want to add a new concept that has recently emerged for me: The Support Team.
The basic idea is that members occasionally need help with meeting basic needs and may find it awkward to ask for it—especially if the only channels available are an announcement in plenary, a notice on the common house bulletin board, or with a message posted on the community list serve.
While some do not have any trouble asking for what they need; others do. Perhaps they don't want to be a burden, perhaps they feel uncomfortable because they are uncertain about whether they'll be able to respond in kind and don't want to run a social capital deficit, perhaps it's embarrassing to discuss personal needs outside the household, perhaps fear of being turned down is too excruciating to take the risk of asking, perhaps they feel overwhelmed at the prospect of organizing and making good use of positive responses, perhaps they are unsure what to ask for and don't want to be vague or inarticulate. There are a number of reasons why putting out the call may not be easy.
The need for this tends to be episodic and can be wide ranging. It could be temporary debilitation (recovering from knee surgery) or permanent (an amputated leg). It could be acute (a bout with pneumonia) or chronic (think emphysema). While it tends to effect older folks more,* anyone can be affected. Even where there this a basic understanding that community members aspire to provide support to one another in time of need—and there is a wealth of heartwarming stories about how this has worked well (even heroically) relying solely on spontaneous personal initiative, there is also a sad underside to this, where help often is extended unevenly—mostly because members are unaware of the need or how they can help. In short, there is a dearth of coordination, where spontaneity and courage fall short. It's not anyone's fault, but there is nonetheless a fault line.
* This concept has terrific potential to be an integral part of how a community can sensitively offer substantive support for people aging in place. Just be aware that needs are not limited to seniors.
As I've become sensitized to this situation I've been thinking about what might help. The response I've come up with is the concept of a Support Team, whose job it would be to work behind the scenes to coordinate a flow of up-to-date information about household needs, shopping the situation discreetly among the membership, and then coordinating responses.
As I envision it, it would work like this:
—The Support Team would be available for any resident to approach it and discuss their household situation. This could be done with the whole team or with just a single member—whoever the resident would feel most comfortable with. The Team (or its rep) would listen carefully and compassionately, help the member get clear on their situation and the specific needs that are being requested. Note that requests will be tailored to that household's situation and can be wide ranging—anything from walking the dog at 8 am to dropping by for a chat and a cup of tea at 4 pm.
—The team would then draft a summary of the information, to be sent to all community members as a private communication, though only after its wording has been approved by the requesting household.
—Part of the communication would be a delineation of the specific things that others are being asked to sign up for. People who are willing to help can offer a one-off (cooking a pan of lasagne next Saturday) or an ongoing commitment (doing grocery shopping every other Thursday morning for the next three months), It's up to them.
By doing it this way, people can respond discreetly, minimizing concerns about how their offer—or the lack of one—may be perceived by neighbors. The point of this is that you want offers to be made guilt-free, and minimally impacted by peer pressure. Responses can vary, depending on a number of factors: the responder's personal relationship with the requester, the responder's history with having received support from others in the past, the bandwidth in the responder's life to carve out support time for the requester, the comfort/skill level of the responder relative to what is asked for, etc.
—The team will then collate offers, clear up ambiguities, and slot shifts into a support chart specific to the requesting household, minimizing double-booking, and troubleshooting to fill unmet needs to the extent possible. Responders will be given their assignments and the chart will be handed over to the requesting household. While all slots may not be filled, half a loaf is better than none.
—The team will periodically check back with the requesting household to see if the situation has substantially changed and pass along updated information to the community as appropriate. Oftentimes community members appreciate getting updates (helping them track what's going on with their neighbors) even if they are not in a position to offer assistance.
—If people miss shifts, the team may be on-call to assist the requesting household find a last-minute replacement.
—Annually the team could offer a summery report on how many requests it handled, roughly how many hours it devoted to the work (so that the community had a solid sense of how much the team was doing), any trends it noticed, and any ideas it had about how things could be enhanced.
It is important to understand that there would be no guarantee that all (or even any) requests for help will be answered. However, if you don't ask, the answer is always "no." It would not be the Support Team's responsibility to cheerlead or cajole; they would simply be passing along important and sensitive information accurately and with compassion—both for the requester and for potential responders.
No one would be required to use the Support Team's service; it would just be something available if you want their help. Similarly, no one would be required to respond to requests for help; it would just be an option. The Support Team would be a coordinating service intended to grease wheels that might otherwise be stuck or sidetracked on the road to compassionate support.
I'm thinking that this role might be filled by a team of 2-3 folks with the following qualities:
• good listener
• patience for working with people when they are under stress and possibly confused and disorganized
• organizational skills
• good communication skills
• discreet with sensitive personal information
• have the bandwidth to be able to respond relatively promptly to requests
• good with logistics and problem solving
• ability to collaborate well with others on the team
Anyway, that's my inspiration. If you like the general concept, feel free to tweak this in any way that you think might be a better fit for your situation. Think of it as a way I can support you and your group.