“Mutual aid” groups generally seek to address community challenges through peer relationships and an eye toward transformative social change. They seek to operate by the dictum “solidarity, not charity.” Adopting clear governance plans early can increase the effectiveness and sustainability of mutual aid groups. Undefined means of operating can lead to what feminist scholar Jo Freeman refers to as a “tyranny of structurelessness.” This concept addresses the potential of unacknowledged power relations to dominate a group’s decision making process. Without structure there is no means to question de facto leadership or hierarchies.

Here are some ideas about how to start:

Don’t overdo it. Too many rules and documents can stifle volunteer groups. Regulations should be mostly invisible, except when they’re needed. The vast majority of good governance work is not rules or tech: it is culture, communication, and trust. Keep your focus on those, but have the rules in the background.

Make explicit where you are. Create your first Rule, using the Create page, to determine and articulate how your group currently functions. Pick a template that closely reflects where your group currently stands.

  • Be honest with yourself and your community
  • Don’t claim to do what you are not ready for
  • Don’t get stuck on utopianism, use it as a mirror

Introduce achievable commitments to strive toward. Draw from the Templates to think about what you might like to have in your Rule in the future, filing in the current gaps with reasonable additions. Consider adding—either in your Rule or linked from it—a code of conduct, community agreement, safer space policy or the like.

  • Be sure all the main questions are answered
  • Reflect on the values that are widespread in the group
  • Share a draft for feedback
  • Devise an appropriate ratification process
  • Ensure there is a mechanism for modifying the Rule—it should be harder than most decisions, but not out of reach

Honor your commitments. As specified in your Rule, make sure you have clear mechanism for carrying out all governance procedures and resolving issues that arise. Enforce any agreements about behavior fairly and uniformly.

  • Share governance roles as widely as possible without creating burdens
  • Account for members’ needs and time commitments, recognizing that not everyone will be able to attend every meeting and enabling multiple methods for participation
  • If possible, separate out enforcement and rule-making roles
  • Be prepared to allow changes to the Rule as experience requires
  • Keep the focus on the work

Designing governance for volunteer-powered groups can be challenging. Focus on transparency and fairness. And remember: culture, communication, and trust are vital elements of successful self-governing.