Are you part of a volunteer organization with very flat hierarchy at the risk of burn out?
The Monday Homeschool Co-operative is a self proclaimed eclectic group of secular homeschoolers who have come together to create a vibrant, non-coercive learning community and to share skills and resources. The group does not seek to cover specific academic skills but rather offer electives that can’t easily be done at home as individual families.
The cooperative began approximately a decade ago as a writing group involving 5 or 6 homeschool families. Over time it has grown in size and complexity, gradually including more families and adding, for example, Spanish language instruction. Today the co-op rents a Quaker meetinghouse every Monday throughout the year to accommodate its 25 families and offer instructional activities including 40 classes each week for ages 1 to 17 ranging from Constructing Miniature Treehouses, Religion, Hand Quilting, Art & Poetry, Computer Science, Capitalism, Weather, Small Business, Ichthyology, Teen Topics, Storytime, and more.
The need for a change
Originally, the co-op was comprised of families that knew each other, so decisions were made informally by mutual agreement. As the group grew, the idea of working by consensus came into play. As recently as 2014 a committee structure was put in place to divide the workload, with major decisions being brought back to the whole group for consensus or, on occasion, a vote. However, these approaches were felt to be unsatisfactory. Meetings were often overly drawn out due to the need for consensus, and decisions often had to be made in lengthy email chains. Both consensus and democratic voting were causing people to burn out with the process.
“[…] homegrown collaboratives tend to be run by one or two highly focused people, a model that is efficient but ultimately unstable since these people are not always the easiest to get along with. [Andrew] feels that sociocracy releases much of the same energy but within a more sustainable and reasonably efficient structure.”
Someone in the group had experience with using sociocracy in a cohousing group and suggested it as a model for self-governance and decision making. This gained interest and 4-5 people went through the Sociocracy for All (SoFA) training offered by Jerry Koch-Gonzalez and hosted by the Pioneer Valley Cohousing Community.
Immediately, the co-op members appreciated the “lower bar” of making decisions by consent rather than consensus. Consent tests people’s tolerance for a proposal while consensus seemed to require that everyone agree that it was a good idea before going ahead. Sociocracy felt like a better fit but still had the value of making sure every voice is heard and every person has a part in the decision.
One of the first implications of going with sociocracy was to rename the committees as “circles” and to empower the circles to make decisions within their domain.
The co-op is still early in its application of sociocracy. Participants are finding some early benefits. While they are learning “to dance a new dance” and there is some confusion about the mechanics, people in the circles feel more clear in their roles and responsibilities. There is also relief that “they don’t have to worry about that decision.” Not everyone has to decide when to have the potluck dinner.
The Monday Homeschool co-op is well on its way to a full implementation of sociocracy. They are aware of the need for guidance and for more practice with the method, to build muscle memory. During the past pandemic year they have had to be flexible in using different formats (such as zoom and email) for making decisions. However, sociocracy comes with built in resilience that has certainly helped maintain the functionality of the group.
This case study was written by Andy Grant, as part of his contribution to the Sociocracy Leadership Training. Thanks, Andy!