Villages without bricks and mortar
The word ‘village’ may conjure up images of a small, close-knit community of happy neighbours who know each other, help and support each other, and live locally and sustainably in a thriving community. In 2017, those of us who live in modern cities might look around at our surroundings and find it difficult to see ‘village life.’
As part of my Social Change Fellowship, I wanted to explore what a ‘village’ can look like in modern cities in the twenty-first century. This led to my interest in a model known as (you guessed it) the Village Model. This post follows my experience with two Villages in California, followed by some analysis of the social and financial aspects of the model.
Origins of the Village Model
In 2001, a group of neighbours in Beacon Hill, Boston, recognised a growing need to support ageing adults to stay living independently in their own homes. The founding group could see the writing on the wall – An ageing population, a health and community care sector that will struggle to cope, and a strong desire from individuals to stay living in their own home, in the neighbourhoods that they know and love.
The Beacon Hill Village was founded as a membership-based network, based on the basic concept of ‘neighbours helping neighbours.’ Retirees living in the Beacon Hill area would pay an annual membership fee in exchange for access to free services provided by volunteers, such as assistance with transportation, shopping, home maintenance, technology use, and a calendar of social activities.
Growth of the Village movement
The success of the Beacon Hill Village spawned a number of Villages across the country, and sixteen years later, there are more than 200 Villages across the United States, with an estimated 150 more in development. These Villages are all independently registered, autonomous non-profit organisations, with the freedom to self-govern and self-manage. The Village-to-Village Network now exists as a centralised node of support, helping communities to establish and manage their own Villages through a Toolkit, online forums, webinars, discounted services, mentoring opportunities and an annual conference.
Up close and personal
One such example is the San Mateo County Village in California, and I had the pleasure of spending time with Scott McMullin, one of the founders and Co-Chair of the Village. Scott explained that his interest in the Village model originated from community development trips to Mexico with his Church, sparking a desire to help others year-round, in his local community. One of the biggest issues of concern locally was the ability of seniors to age well in their own homes, so after learning about the Village model, Scott saw great potential to connect local volunteers with seniors.
The San Mateo County Village launched on 1st July, 2015, and received approximately 60 members and 50 volunteer sign-ups within the first few days. Two years later, this has grown to a member-base of 150, supported by 120 active volunteers. Members are seniors who have a willingness and ability to pay an annual $600 membership fee ($750 per household), in exchange for access to the Village’s network of volunteers, who can provide assistance in order to maintain their ability to live in the community. Scott estimated that approximately two thirds of service requests received from members are for transport assistance (e.g for a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or to the shops), with a further 15% of requests for ‘handyman services,’ and 10% for technology assistance. Members also receive access to a social calendar, which includes two special events per year, bi-monthly coffee & conversation gatherings, and monthly excursions to various locations.
Pictured above: Volunteers and first members at San Mateo County Village’s first annual Volunteer Appreciation Event.
With increasing cases of members expressing their feelings of loneliness, the operational team have begun experimenting with ways to facilitate greater connections between members living locally, through strategies such as instigating self-organising neighbourhood groups, through which members living on the same block are brought together for an initial pot-luck dinner, in the hopes of forging new connections that neighbours will self-sustain. Scott reports that to date, this has had mixed success, depending on the presence of members with the initiative to take the lead.
As a comparative example, I made the journey down to Santa Cruz to meet with Mary Howe, one of the founders of Santa Cruz Village. Mary spoke of her Dad’s later life struggle with Alzheimer’s, the death of an elderly neighbour and her own pending retirement leading to her ruminating on the big question of, “how do we age well?” The Village model appealed to Mary;
“The way we handle ageing is medical. People need more than just that. I don’t like what I see, I want it to be a community thing…<The Village model> it looked doable, it’s just groups of regular people.”
Pictured: Mary Howe, Co-Founder of Santa Cruz Village. Image courtesy of The Good Times.
Launching earlier this year in February, the Santa Cruz Village (Village SC) has been signing up locals for Basic Membership at $300/year, with a primary focus on connecting people through social events. The organising team plan to launch a “Member Plus” service-based stream soon, with $420/year to access volunteer-provided services such as transport, home maintenance and accompanied doctor’s visits.
Creative applications to foster connections
One of the things that interested me most about the approach of Village SC was the heightened importance placed on social connection, and the valuing of mutual contributions. Rather than the traditional 1:1 member:volunteer pairing for home maintenance tasks, Village SC plan to organise “working party” teams to rotate around to member’s homes each weekend, to volunteer together and share lunch afterwards. Village SC have also set up a private group through a time-banking platform that enables members to connect with each other through both giving and receiving. Mary explains that this is important for growing a culture of reciprocity.
“People don’t like to ask for help, it’s a cultural thing. When people use <timebanking exchange>, it’s not that same feeling of “I need help.” It’s an exchange, it’s different. For those timebanking today, in ten years, they’ll have that culture of both receiving and giving help.”
A quick glance at the platform shows the highly personalised nature of the offers and requests, with examples such as learning to make sauerkraut, learning basic sign language, making a vision board and sharing family recipes. This suggests that as well as empowering members by disrupting the dynamic of being a “service user only,” the exchanges create strong relationship-development opportunities by facilitating connections through shared interests.
Business model, inclusivity and viability
Across the country, the business model has proved to be one of the biggest challenges for Villages, with more than 20 Villages reportedly ceasing operations due to an inability to meet the ongoing running costs. Member dues typically cover approximately 60-70% of operational costs, with fundraising, donations and grants subsidising the remainder. Even the Village-to-Village Network relies primarily on member dues from its constituent Villages, and actively seeks sponsors and donors to support its work. San Mateo County are cautious of this, and have strategically adopted a hub-and-spoke model, bringing together the Villages of Sequoia, Foster City and Mid Peninsula under the one umbrella to increase their overall income and efficiency through economies of scale. As a result of this strategy, Scott estimated that San Mateo County’s member dues are covering 80% of costs, although he believes that volunteer retention and membership renewals will be their two biggest challenges into the future.
Another aspect of the model that has come under critique is the resourcing mechanism. Across the Villages, membership dues are estimated to fall within the range of $300-$1,200/year. One local described that due to member dues being the primary financing mechanism, Villages have become, “a movement of the middle class,” and even this review of the model published by Scharlach and Graham in The Gerontologist describes Village members as, “predominantly white, non-Hispanic, middle-class Seniors.” Some Villages are mindful of the cost barrier to access, and create subsidised options for people experiencing financial hardship.
Sustainability further becomes a challenge when the original founding group (often a small group of retirees) work hard to start-up their Village for the first couple of years, before realising that they’re working pretty hard for people who thought they were retiring from work, and decide to use the dues to employ an administrator to manage operations. As a paid employee, that person can end up spending much of their time fundraising to fill the gap between operating costs and member dues, which has the potential to shift focus and resources away from quality of service delivery.
What do we take away from all of this?
Given the similarities between the ageing population in Australia and the United States and the growing concern of social isolation and loneliness in our older adult population, the Village Model gave me much to ponder on.
Here are my 7 reflections on virtual villages:
- You reap what you sew. Start with a focus on “providing a more affordable way of getting assistance as you age,” you appeal to a cost-saving motivation. Focus on “community helping each other to age well,” you appeal to a social motivation and desire to give as well as receive, and shape a different tone for your network.
- Friendships don’t just happen. The Village Model in itself isn’t guaranteed to make friendships happen. Strategic, intentional ways of connecting people can increase the chances of this (eg. Small-group home help “working party” groups, mutual-exchange mechanisms and the intentional creation of neighbourhood social groups within the member base). At a very minimum, transport and home-based assistance services can reduce isolation and feelings of loneliness.
- Business as usual for non-profits. The Village is ultimately still a non-profit with similar challenges to resourcing and financial sustainability as any other. Villages that do well are those that can manage their ‘business’ effectively, have (and constantly refresh) a strong cohort of operational volunteers, and are based in areas where residents have a greater capacity to pay dues and/or community grants are readily available.
- Tech isn’t always the answer. Technology can create great impact as well as operational efficiencies, but this is dependent on members having good digital access, literacy and confidence. Often, group orientations to online systems need personalised, in-home 1:1 follow-up support, assuming the appetite is there.
- People power rules. A model remains just a good idea without the people to bring it to life. Villages depend on a small, compassionate, committed group of local people to start up, set up and thrive. Adequate resourcing of the ‘on-the-ground’ community engagement aspects of such models is easy to overlook and underestimate, yet essential to achieving the intended outcomes.
- Contribution changes everything. Operating from a core belief that all people have the capacity to make valued contributions, and starting with supporting people to identify their gifts, skills and abilities positions and empowers people as valued members able to make valued contributions to others. This is far more likely to lead to natural relationships than models that start from a position of “what services do you need,” that position the individual as a passive recipient of services. Mutual-value exchange models can more effectively facilitate intergenerational, cross-cultural and cross-community relationships by valuing the contributions that all citizens can make.
- The recipe for scalability? Scalability to other areas is enabled by a relatively neutral name, low barriers to entry, easy access to a suite of ‘how-to’ guides, resources and tools and the flexibility for local people to stamp their own name, determine their own membership structure and operational agenda and tailor its function to their own preferences and the needs of the local context. A decentralised network of independent hubs supports the overall resilience of the network by placing the viability of each hub in its own hands.
What do you think of the Village Model?