Review: Making Membership Meaningful

In 1995, an international consortium of co-op academics and practitioners collaborated on a book called Making Membership Meaningful: Participatory Democracy in Co-operatives. Before offering you a description of what is covered and some provocative ideas to ponder, I'm going to come right out with it: read this book. It contains a wealth of extremely valuable information about a vital topic. It is crucial for the success of co-ops that we all give serious thought and study to the issues discussed in this book. Making Membership Meaningful is a little long, and there is some repetition. There are certainly some problems with translation from the writers' original languages, and the book could have used a good editor. But these are minor issues. Making Membership Meaningful gives us the chance to learn from the best thinking of consumer co-ops around the world and can help us address an area that sorely needs attention.


Inspired by the process begun by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1991 to review the basic values and philosophical underpinnings of co-ops, a group of consumer co-op leaders came together. Masayuke Yamagishi, CEO of Co-op Kanagawa in Japan, provided the initial momentum and enlisted the support of Dr. Jack Craig of York University in Toronto and Per-Olof Joasson of the Swedish co-op system. Eventually the group grew to include the Swedish Cooperative Development and Research Institute, a team of Canadian co-op researchers (Drs. Ian MacPherson and Lou Hammond-Ketilson), Ivaro Barberini of the National Association of Consumers' Co-operatives in Italy, and Graham Melmoth of the Co-operative Wholesale Society in the U.K.

The group's charge was to "exchange information regarding the ways in which established cooperative organizations may be revitalized . . . (especially with regards to) member participation." Over the course of the next three years, the authors sorted through the best research on management theory, cooperatives, the practice of democracy, and increasing member and staff participation. Key issues were identified, and case studies of the initiatives and efforts being employed by co-ops around the world were developed to provide a variety of ideas for practical application. The co-ops profiled in the case study are: Co-op Kanagawa in Japan, the Scottish and Italian consumer co-op systems, Co-op Atlantic and its members, the Calgary Co-op, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and KF, the Swedish consumer co-op system. All are large and successful consumer co-ops except the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, a producer marketing co-op with a very participatory membership system.

The book is designed for use by practitioners and theoreticians alike, and it lives up to that promise. It begins with a summary of the key findings of the group, continues with the case studies/profiles, and concludes with an overview of relevant research and theoretical foundations. It grew out of the authors' analysis that the "decline of consumers' co-operatives in many places is a result of the failure of leaders to stimulate sufficient participation in both the business enterprise side and the voluntary association side of the co-operative." The book is designed to provide background as well as specific plans being used by co-ops to revitalize members' participation.

Key findings and highlights

Several major themes emerge throughout the book. One is that co-ops have come to imitate the practices of privately owned businesses in order to compete and that this tendency undermines the "foundation that sets co-ops apart from private corporations." The authors assert that "consumer co-operatives, in particular, are likely to be more successful if they effectively differentiate themselves from their competitors. As part of this effort, they can seek to position themselves as organizations which are relevant to both consumers and communities."

A second theme, the techniques used by co-ops to increase member participation, are grouped in five categories, which also provide a common structure and reference for the case study profiles. The key areas are:

  • expanding members' participation;
  • the relationship between members and management;
  • innovation oforganizational structure;
  • expanding employee participation;
  • economic and social responsibility.

A third theme is that membership participation is an area that requires concerted effort, planning, and management focus in order to be successful. The conclusion of the report is that there is no one solution that can be used to increase member participation, but that it is vital for co-ops to set goals and measure performance or progress in these areas. Indeed, almost all the case studies emphasized the special effort required to incorporate attention to membership functions and activities into strategic planning processes. Almost every co-op profiled has recently experienced a major change or challenge (e.g., new competition, serious financial crisis, alienation of employees, change in members' shopping habits) that has precipitated the need to focus on increasing membership participation. Every co-op system has engaged in extensive analysis of these changes and has concluded that it is vital for their future survival that the co-op provide more meaning to members than only a convenient store (though efficient retail operations are also emphasized).

The profiles provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of very different and yet very similar consumer co-ops. Each case study provides a brief overview of the growth and development of the co-op being profiled and its major challenges and problems. Not all of these co-ops have figured out how to maximize member participation, but reading their analysis and the proposals they will be pursuing is insightful.

We also discover fascinating things about the issues being discussed in different countries. In Sweden a proposal to allow members to vote by mail ballots has been put forth but not yet accepted by members. In the Co-op Atlantic system, very few co-ops allow employees to serve on committees or on the board, and the idea has been the focus of systemwide debate. The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool holds an eight-day annual membership meeting attended by well over 100 elected delegates. Japanese laws strictly forbid the use of a co-op by non-members and limit a co-op's trade area to a single prefecture. Yet far more numerous are the commonalities and the lessons applicable to all consumer co-ops.

Relevance to food co-ops

Many food co-op leaders, directors and staff alike, lament poor turnout at election times and the few numbers of their membership that actually take an "ownership" interest or participate in any way with the co-op. Yet, there are very few resources for staff or volunteers to turn to for ideas or help in this area. Making Membership Meaningful is a remarkable resource for two reasons: because it addresses such an important and rarely discussed topic, and because it provides valuable examples and a broader understanding of the way other co-ops have addressed these concerns. All of the co-ops profiled, in their own way, distinguish between three types of members: those who are mostly customers, those who will be involved, and those who assume an ownership mentality and approach to the co-op.

Although there are some clear differences, the situations facing food co-ops are notably similar to those facing other co-op systems. Many food co-ops are growing and experiencing the stress that comes with growth. Some are exploring the possibility of opening a second store or operating multiple locations. All are facing increasingly tough competition. And labor/workplace issues are becoming more complex and formal for all food co-ops. Indeed, the challenge that forms the premise of the book -- to make sure that the co-op "doesn't just imitate the competition and is distinctly different as a co-op" -- is a timely one for food co-ops.

In addition, as many food co-ops face their 20th or 30th anniversaries, they see the need to attract a new generation of shoppers to their membership. While these stores initially were (mostly) successful in serving their college student markets and have adapted as those members have aged and changed, that strategy is short-lived. In order to succeed beyond this generation, co-ops must attract new members and be as relevant to those members as they were to their members in earlier years.

The book will challenge your co-op to think about these issues. You might:

  • read it and make note of the things you may be able to do in your co-op;
  • have one or two people review the book and identify salient points for your co-op before a planning session;
  • form a membership study group to discuss a chapter each month;
  • use the inspiration of this book as a basis for getting together to discuss key ideas with other membership staff of consumer co-ops in your area;
  • make reviewing this book a six-month project for your co-op's management team;
  • encourage your board's membership committee to review the book, or perhaps one chapter in particular, and use it as the basis for planning the committee's work for the next year.

Make sure that your co-op makes good use of this book, which provides essential thinking and a variety of ideas in an area where there are very few resources. While the book demonstrates that there is no one right solution to increasing membership participation, it will expand your horizons and ensure that you improve your co-op's performance in this area. Members are not just a captive market. Being genuinely interested in member concerns and the larger community is an integral aspect of a successful co-op.

Making Membership Meaningful is available for $15.00 from the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, 101 Diefenbaker P1., University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Sask. 57N 5B8; 306-966-8509; [email protected].

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