Board Orientation, Training, and Education

‘Boards are the key to the future of our co-ops’

We all want to leave the co-op better than it was when we came on the board,” said Rachel Soffer, board president of Lakewinds Natural Foods, with stores in the Minneapolis suburbs of Anoka, Minnetonka, and Chanhassen.

“Boards are the key to the future of our co-ops,” said Mark Goehring, Cooperative Development Services (CDS) consultant and former board president of Brattleboro Food Co-op, Brattleboro, Vt.

Investing in board development promotes thriving co-ops. Such co-ops have:

  • effective and strong leadership from the board of directors;
  • accountability systems throughout—board accountability to members, general manager accountability to the board, and board accountability to itself;
  • healthy, collaborative relations between the board and general manager; and
  • shared vision among leaders.

Here’s how your co-op can get all these benefits from orientating, training, and educating board members.

Orienting new directors

The first part of orienting new directors starts before election to the board. Soffer said, “It is important for all board members to have their antennae up” when talking to co-op members who could make good board members.

The director application packet introduces the director position to prospective applicants and should define the board’s role and work. Materials incorporate information on board structure and responsibilities; job description including expectations of board members, such as a code of ethics and anticipated time commitment for board and committee work; desired attributes; and criteria considered in nominating a candidate.

The completed application gives the applicant an opportunity to emphasize desired qualities and provide information for the ballot’s candidate statement. Having directors meet with applicants can reinforce that the board does not deal with operational issues such as selecting products. Co-ops may have all applicants on the ballot or use a nominations committee to present a slate of candidates.

To be effective, directors need information to make decisions and monitor the co-op’s performance. Orientation starts the ongoing process of informing directors and developing effective directors and boards. During orientation, directors learn what the board does and how it operates. Effective directors share a vision, work as a team, speak with one voice, look to the future, and work systematically and in a timely manner. Orientation prepares new directors to function well at their first board meeting and gives them an understanding of the board manual as a reference tool.

Orientation reinforces cooperative principles and that the director’s co-op belongs to a larger co-op community. Lucas Frerichs, seven-year board member and past president of Davis Food Co-op in Davis, Calif., said, “I personally teach the Co-op History/Co-op Movement class (as part of DFC board orientation and training), and I think it is extremely important to convey to new board members the history of the worldwide/U.S./local co-op movement so that they may realize what kind of an impact cooperatives have on a worldwide, national, and local scale.” The co-op structure of member ownership promotes economic democracy, an opportunity for individuals to be part of the ownership society.

Boards use a variety of ways to orient directors between election and their first board meeting. A returning director may meet with new directors on a day before the director’s first board meeting or earlier in the day of the board meeting. Several Minneapolis-St. Paul area co-ops with the same election cycle hold a joint orientation open to new and returning directors before an all-board training evening.

“I believe in peer learning,” said Tom Guettler, “and think it’s a good idea to include the entire board in the orientation.” He has worked with co-op board training and facilitation since 1994, including three years as board president of Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op in St. Paul. Should training for new directors occur before the first board meeting or after the director has attended a few meetings and realizes what he/she needs to know? “I think it’s best done before a new director’s first board meeting,” said Guettler. “Considering the competitive nature of the marketplace, the pressure is on the board to make every meeting count. That means a new director should hit the ground running. Leading a multimillion-dollar corporation is serious business.”

“I think that younger co-op board members might find financial training useful, as they may not have as much experience with the financial side of how a particular co-op runs,” said Frerichs, first elected to the Davis Food Co-op board as a 19-year-old staff member. Before her first board meeting in November 2005, Sarah Wovcha of Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis wanted “a lot of background” on the co-op. She looked forward to receiving the board manual with board, co-op, and industry materials, along with legal and financial documents.

New board members start with very scant knowledge of the Policy Governance model, wrote Ron Griffith, president of Just Foods: Northfield Community Co-op in Northfield, Minn. “That’s really big. Almost everything else I can think of flows from that.” Just Foods formed in 2003 and opened in December 2004.

Training and education

Training and education continue the process of improving director and board effectiveness and help them prepare for change. Whether anticipating member needs, preparing for a general manager’s retirement, expanding a store, or opening another store, boards have a variety of challenges. Board members’ experience and opportunities facing the co-op influence the timing, content, presenter(s), and venue for training and education programs. Goehring said that since board members may not be clear on their roles, it is “important to have commitment to learning and improvement. We may not know everything we need to know, so how do we learn together?”

Co-ops can present their own training or hire consultants. Co-ops in a geographic area occasionally have coordinated joint board training, and directors in other areas may want to do likewise. (See “Resources” for board training content from CGIN, page 25.) In addition, the board and management team may meet together for planning.

Cooperative Development Services consultants have identified needs for ongoing board training and have piloted a board education program for Eastern Corridor co-ops. This resulted in 24 co-ops participating in 2005. For 2006, CDS renamed the program Cooperative Board Leadership Development (CBLD) and added NCGA Central Corridor co-ops.

Directors who have attended Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) annual conferences praised the sessions and the opportunity to network with consultants and other directors. Sending more than one director allowed them to compare notes or attend concurrent workshops. CCMA will hold its next annual conference on June 8–10, 2006, in Atlanta, Ga. Co-ops will receive conference registration information early in 2006. (See page 18.)

Cooperative Grocer and Cooperative Business Journal offer a relatively inexpensive ongoing method to learn about the natural foods industry and the co-op sector, respectively, that fits directors’ busy schedules.

Websites provide another ongoing educational option on the latest co-op developments.


Defining the desired end results from orientation, training, and education programs structures program planning. Evaluating presentations allows program planners and directors to learn what worked, what’s missing, and how to improve future programs.

Investing in board development strengthens the board and individual directors. An effective board contributes to a thriving co-op. And the potential success of the entire food co-op system depends on having thriving co-ops.


Candace Dow has served on the board of directors of Wedge Community Co-op since 1991, including five years as president ([email protected]).

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