I helped start up a discussion group in one of our nearby rural communities last night. The discussion group is a subgroup of a larger community sustainability group which is just forming, and I could see many of the dynamics that I have seen in many similar groups in the past. Apart from leadership, the early organization and structure seems to be an important factor of how successful these groups end up being, and even if they get off the ground in the first place.
Here are some reflections on how these groups can be organized (from an email I just sent).
Some time back, I was part of an organization with a similar focus. We used the strategy of having regular whole-group meetings and several temporary workgroups meeting more frequently (or as needed).
Large group meetings
The large-group meetings were partly social (food, socializing), partly reports back to the large group from the sub/work groups, and partly conversations about the overall direction and strategy of the group as a whole.
We did not go into decision-making on subprojects as that was the domain of the subgroups. There were three reasons for avoiding decisions on particular projects. One is that it would create too much confusion with interference from the large group into the subgroup. Another is that it would mean boredom for the participants not particularly interested in the particular project. And finally, there was no need for it. Anyone who wanted could join the subgroups and participate in that way.
I personally see this as a very important distinction between the work of the one large group and the many smaller.
The only thing the large group would be concerned about (and only rarely) was if the subprojects seemed out of alignment with the overall direction and strategies of the group as a whole.
The smaller groups were very fluid in terms of life-span and how often they met. Some lasted for a long time, if they worked on an ongoing projects. Other for only a short time if the project was clearly defined and over at a certain time (for instance organizing a public event). They met as frequently as was needed. And anyone interested in a particular project could join, which meant that some people were involved in more than one subgroup.
Some of the workgroup projects included organizing of specific events and workshops, directory development, study and research, and so on.
The benefit of this differentiation is that the whole group gets to meet and know each other, without the dreariness of minute decision making (which can kill even the most dedicated group). They get the fun without the drudgery.
At the same time, it allows people to get immediately involved in the projects closest to their own heart. It helps the momentum going and allows for relatively fast and possibly multiple (when there are multiple work groups) accomplishments.
And maybe most importantly, it allows each person to participate in the way and to the extent they are interested.