Overcoming Resistance to Local Cooperation

In previous posts I talked about the power of local groups as they cooperate for the common good, especially motivated by saving money and improving their communities. Our transformation to a community mindset was dramatic and difficult to imagine given our location (outside of Boston) and makeup (former city folk). I imagine that the traditional route to neighborhood and community cooperation, outlined in the previous post, would be difficult to replicate for most others. Encouraging it is noble, but not particularly effective. Unfortunately, in my brief activism online I've found that resistance to group effort is fairly universal. How do we overcome this resistance? Here's how.

I mentioned before that our collaborative efforts have been aided by software created for us by a friend who volunteered his time and gave us something simple that helped us keep track of every "split", who was involved, and all the details of that split. Each split had a forum where discussions could take place and logistics could be ironed out and group consensus could be reached. Each split had a leader who was ultimately responsible, and most of those involved in our community have been leaders of at least one split. It worked great for us - and we still use it today. But it is not appropriate for world distribution. First of all, it requires an existing organized community, which is a rarity, and second, it is difficult for new individuals and families to become involved - it is not particularly inviting and friendly to newbies who must be shown the ropes by existing members.

A few months ago, my husband suggested to our programmer friend (Steve) that he use our software as the basis for a new web application, open to everybody, where local people can find each other through the application itself. People with similar interests in goods, items, services and other interests - who live near each other - can find each other and organize splits online, and invite others or permit others to join in a similar way. This seems to be the answer: the barriers to community formation are far lower, and the organizational tools are freely available. I am therefore encouraging participation in the new web application as much as I am encouraging the theory and benefits of collaborative effort. I have no financial interest in the site, nor does my husband, nor does anybody in our community. In my opinion, it is simply the single best way to encourage collaborative local activity of any kind.

The above describes the ultimate usage of the application, where thousands of people are using it in every city. Currently it is quite new and undergoing beta testing. In order to use the site at this stage you must invite your local friends, neighbors and co-workers to use the site and organize your splits with it together. Pick something you all want to split, like a durable item or a bulk good, and just do it. In order to make it a universal tool and encourage collaborative activity widely, we must all play our part to grow it in our local areas and spread it to new areas. It's in beta testing mode, so you must also provide Steve feedback. Steve seems very willing to modify it to suit our needs. To request an invitation, go to http://www.splitstuff.com/beta and mention my blog, your city and briefly explain your interest in it. Also, he is limiting beta testing to the US and Canada for now. I have friends in the UK and New Zealand who are anxious to get started - very soon, I'm sure.

Saving money as the doorway to community

There are a plethora of "communities" online. But the notion of online or virtual communities has been mocked by those who consider community a more intimate group of geographically local individuals working together for a common local good. Traditional holdouts miss the point that common good does not have to be local. Nonetheless, for cooperative buying it's better to be local.

Non-local collective buying power works for ipods and car parts - there are many online apps encouraging suppliers to bid to supply groups of buyers interested in the same item. Most of these applications have gone out of business for reasons I'll try to reference in a future post. Local collaborative buying is far more powerful:

  1. local groups can split ownership of durable items, getting full use out of dozens of quality items for a tiny fraction of the price,
  2. local groups can buy goods in huge bulk directly from suppliers by pooling money and splitting up the delivery as soon as it arrives. Needless to say, huge bulk means huge savings, less transportation, packaging and waste.
  3. local groups can negotiate as groups for better deals on local items, services and community improvements. Think gym memberships, babysitters, instructors and classes, community projects, local political change, etc.
My previous post outlined a major psychological and practical hurdle: expanding from solitary efforts to more powerful group efforts. How does one get past this hurdle? Traditionally, one can organize neighborhood meetings by posting fliers and knocking on doors, or one can build a community center or a physical co-op and let people come to you. There is a far better way that I'll talk about in my next post. In our case, we were already attending neighborhood meetings due to an unrelated neighborhood crisis. The topic of collaborative efforts to reduce expenses and save money was raised at these meetings and the collaborative mindset evolved very slowly from there.

Saving money was our initial motive, but today we are also much greener and far more involved generally. Our children are growing up within a real community, thinking of themselves as individuals but also playing an important role in a greater good. They don't display nearly as much of the consumerism and selfishness common in other neighborhoods and towns that look similar to ours from the outside. I feel blessed every day that my family and I are part of this new frontier, this grand experiment in human nature that gives me hope for the future.

Frugal, Green, but Solitary

Most people seem to want to save money and be green alone. Each person, or each family, is an island unto themselves. They might share tips on coupons or discounts socially, or tips on being more green. Social media is the most social they get in their "activism". And why not? Clearly you can cut costs and be green alone. Some may think it's easier; some may think other people are scary in the real world. What's your reason?

I'm not here to lecture anybody, or tell you you're not trying hard enough or not doing your part if you do it alone. I just want you to consider that a group of people is often much more powerful than the sum of each individual. This has certainly been my experience with my community. We determine what we need and are not subject to the whims of chain stores with their coupons or discounts for things they'd like to promote. Our costs are significantly below even the warehouse stores, and the quality we find is much better. For many of us, the costs of buying organic would be prohibitive as individuals; as a group the prices are very attractive.

Only as a group can you reduce costs, packaging and waste by splitting bulk purchases. Only as a group can you buy a top quality truck for 10% of its purchase price. Only as a group can you knock 40% off a gym membership. Only as a group can you have a community garden, or share produce from many backyard gardens. Only as a group can you share rides, or other community or household equipment, or expensive tools, or a quality lawnmower, etc. etc. We are doing all of these and much, much more. In a future post I'll talk about how we did it, and how you can do it too.

Borrowing and Splitting

Before we began splitting we tried borrowing. There were the haves and the have nots - at least when it came to particular items. Nobody had everything, but together we had most things. So we tried to be good neighbors and agreed to let our neighbors borrow from a predetermined list of items at any time (when convenient).

We made a great effort, but found our system started to damage relationships and certainly damaged the borrowed items. No matter the neighbor or friend, borrowed items are just never respected as much as an owned item. Items were returned damaged or not properly maintained or not re-fueled, or with almost-empty batteries, or not fully cleaned, etc. We had numerous meetings where it was mentioned, but no solutions were satisfactory. Eventually the effort died out.

We then tried splitting. At first, a few high quality items were purchased by pooling money from those who wanted to use those items. We agreed on terms for each item and then we created a checkout system. Initially there were some bumps, but we perfected the method and got used to the procedures. There was something about owning a fraction of an item that lead to respect for it, and respect for next splitter.

We then began to pool our money in order to buy goods in huge bulk and saw a large discount. Eventually we were splitting so many things that all the splitters, terms and details got a little confusing. We asked a friend to create a simple computer program to help us organize our splits, and it works great - we could have used it from the very start. So far we've been splitting for a few years and each family has saved many thousands of dollars, and reduced waste and clutter in the process.

First Post

This is my first post... I mean really my first post. Very exciting. Why have I decided to blog? For some reason I decided to surf Google to see how many other towns, communities and neighborhoods were doing what we've been doing. I saw a lot of terrific ideas by some very inspired frugal, personal finance, simple life and eco bloggers and authors... but I was shocked to see that nobody was talking about splitting!!!

I did finally find some mention of perhaps a handful of other neighborhoods where similar methods are being employed, but it seemed to be a very rare occurrence. Suddenly I felt a rush of obligation, like a warm wind rushing past my face. I had to write about this - to tell people what they are missing, and all the excess money they are spending, and extra waste and clutter they are accumulating.

I'm no activist, and I don't see myself as a leader. But maybe I can help make a bad economy a little less bad for some people and some communities. Will anybody see this blog??? Credit for my new web skills goes to my son Jeff who is teaching me to use Blogger, Facebook, forums, etc.