Building and Improving Membership Programs

Members are the lifeblood of a co-op: a truism of cooperatives. Without members, a co-ops wouldn't be a co-op; it would be just another local grocery store. A co-op exists to serve the needs of its members.

But members provide more than a co-op's reason for being. They provide the capital, the patronage, the accountability, the control, and the goodwill that allow a cooperative to survive and thrive. Members are the co-op's owners, customers, and ambassadors. Consumer ownership is the co-op's mark of distinction and the foundation upon which any successful food co-op will be built.

Unfortunately, all too often membership is the forgotten aspect of a co-op's operations. Membership functions are viewed as secondary and a low priority. They are approached without any creativity or enthusiasm. This short-sighted approach leaves too many co-ops with lackluster membership programs and without the advantage of a strong, engaged membership base.


Make your systems efficient and understandable.
It should be easy to:

* join the co-op

* remain a current member

* understand benefits

* understand responsibilities

* receive invested equity upon resigning membership

* vote

* give input on the co-op


A strong membership program

For a membership program to produce a supportive membershp, it must be planned carefully. It can't be an afterthought. It has to be integral to all aspects of the way the co-op operates.

The mentality of consumer ownership must be an essential part of the way the co-op operates and must be a core consideration in all decisions. It must fundamentally shape the way co-op management approaches its job. This basic orientation will provide the structure upon which membership programs and specific activities are built.

Membership programs have to creatively and meaningfully reinforce the message that consumer ownership is important and valued. Typically, we find membership programs, or their specific aspects, falling into one of the following categories:

  • Ignore and fail:  Co-ops with programs in this category do not fulfill even the basic responsibilities of being a co-op. They do not have an accurate listing of members and the amount of equity contributon made by individual members. They do not provide for meaningful elections or communications to members and may forget to hold annual meetings.
  • Basic but uninspired:  These program get the basic functions accomplished, but they are generally perfunctory and lifeless.  While the co-op is meeting a basic responsbility, the absence of any creative effort or fresh approaches renders the activity uninspiring.  More than likely, only a few of the most dedicated co-op members pay attention to these activities.
  • Added value:  A step up from those at the basic level, these programs reflect the effort that has been made to consider what might help make events or functions distinctive, interesting, and meaningful to members. These events and activities go beyond just meeting a basic responsibility and will be attended and noticed by more than just the core members.
  • WOW!:  These programs change the way people think about the co-op. They reflect tremendous creativity and leave people wanting more or looking toward the co-op for great things. They meet a membership responsibility while at the same time creating a distinctive sense of ownership and community among members.  Membership programs characterized by the "WOW" level are: a) real and meaningful, b) lively and interesting, c) accurate and efficient, d) thoughtful and well-planned.

"WOW" programs demonstrate to members that membership functions are truly important to the co-op -- not just a perfunctory business requirement.

What level for your co-op?

Most co-ops operate "basic but uninspired" membership programs. Some operate at that level but have one or two activities at the "better" or even "best" level. No matter how your co-op is currently operating, some principles apply:

  • The first step is to meet all basic responsibilities: have good membership records, hold annual meetings, meet communications requirements. For co-ops that have not devoted sufficient resources toward the membership function, this is the starting point.
  • The next step is to set some goals in the area of membership. Start with some benchmarks for the membership function, after assessing your current membership programs. For instance, indicators could be:

-- percentage of sales to members

-- member equity as a percent of assets

-- percent of members' purchases from the co-op

-- net new members per year

-- percent of members voting

-- number of members attending annual meeting

  • Once you have assessed current functions and established some benchmarks, you can start improving the quality of membership activities. For instance, you can improve a newsletter by hiring good writers to prepare interesting, topical articles and by hanging the format, design, or graphic elements.
  • The key to achieving the "WOW" level is to hire staff or involve members who care passionately about the co-op and who bring talent and skill to that area. Some staff (paid or volunteer) have more creativity and talent. Match people with the project where they have the greatest skill. As you set your sights on getting some of your membershp activities to this level, start with those areas where you can get the most "bang for the buck."
  • Don't set unrealistic goals or expectations. A co-op can probably never or only rarely conduct all of its membership activities at the "WOW" level. More importantly, make sure all basic functions are being fulfilled, and then work to bring improvements.

Covering basic functions

Membership in a cooperative means ownership -- members legally own and control the assets of the cooperative. Cooperatives have a legal and moral obligation to fulfill fundamental responsibilities related to membership. First and foremost among these responsibilities is accurate record-keeping. The cooperative must keep accurate records which identify:

  • who is legally a current member;
  • who is entitled to vote;
  • how much equity each member owns;
  • what benefits for which each member is eligible.

Additionally, the cooperative's membershp system should be efficient and understandable. This means that it should be easy to:

  • join
  • remain a current member
  • understand member benefits
  • understand the expectations, requirements, and responsibilities of members
  • resign membership and receive a refund of invested equity
  • vote
  • give input on all aspects of the co-op's operations.

Keep in mind that the basics need to come first. Before you spend time working on organizing a "WOW" annual meeting or newsletter, make sure that the co-op has accurate records and efficient membership systems. With all the elements in place at a basic level, you can then take membership programs to the next level.

Making membership meaningful

Consumers must value and understand their role as member/owners before they will assume the responsibilities of ownershp.  It's unrealistic to assume that people will understand and value joint ownership without explanation. Most people don't understand what it means to own a business, let alone share ownership democratically with many other people!

It is vital to the success of co-ops that membership be a meaningful part of the co-op. There are four keys to making sure this is the case:

  1. Offer real and meaningful benefits.
  2. Provide effective member control of the co-op.
  3. Communicate clearly the nature of the relationship between the co-op and its members.
  4. Keep the program (communication and activities) live and interesting, while maintaining consistency.

1. Real and meaningful benefits

The primary benefit to members as a whole is the co-op's continuing existence! The co-op is a business designed to provide the members good quality products and services at fair market prices, and this benefit is delivered day to day, year in and year out. Joining the co-op gives each member a chance to help build an ethical and honest business that operates with customer interests at heart and is controlled by member/owners.

Most cooperatives offer additional incentives to members for the investment they make when joining the cooperative. These benefits should provide a fair return to the member and be economically feasible for the cooperative. There are a great variety of benefits offered by food cooperatives across the country, but the primary additional financial benefit to individual members is a fair share of the surplus. This surplus is typically delivered to members either at the time of purchase through member discounts, or after the end of the year as a patronage refund. Most importantly, such surpluses are shared with members in proportions to their use of the co-op -- that is, their purchases. This notion of rewarding members proportionate to their use rather than the amount of their investment is a key element of co-op philosophy.

Many co-ops offere additional benefits to their members. There is no magic formula to putting together a benefits package. The key is to find what is meaningful to your members, balanced with what is feasible and economically possible for the co-op.

2. Effective member control.

In addition to economic benefits, the co-op offers consumers a change to participate in a variety of ways. Effective member control does not mean control of every or even most decisions.  Cooperative members empower the board of directors to make decisions on their behalf. Boards in turn empower general managers to make further decisions, and so on throughout the cooperaive. Members should not be asked to make complex business, investment, and real estate decisions that require in-depth analysis and understanding. However, members should be assured of the chance to elect a board of directors and hold them accountable for making or delegating these decisions in the best interest of the cooperative as a whole.

Beyond member votes, good cooperative membership programs will offer other meaningful ways for member voices to be heard, considered, and responded to. Suggestion or comment boxes are essential. A critical factor is not the amount of member control but members' satisfaction with their cooperative. To ensure satisfaction, create meaningful opportunities for member voices to be heard, and be responsive to that input.

3. Clear, understandable communication

Most fundamentally the co-op's communications must build understanding of the cooperative and of members' role as co-owners. To do this, co-ops must work to ensure that all communications with members are clear and effective for both parties.

Effective communication helps members, potential members, and the general public understand the power and the promise of cooperatively owned business. Effective communication does not come from one event, one brochure, or one meeting. It comes from care and attention to the communication aspect of each of these activities and more. Every activity and decision of the cooperative should communicate that this business is different, this business is owned and controlled by the people who use it.

4. Lively, interesting, consistent

Membership programs and activities should be lively and interesting. To achieve a "WOW" level, membership activities must be fun and intriguing. Too often membership events are seen as a burden -- something we have to do -- rather than as an opportunity to express our uniqueness. Guilt is not an appropriate motivator for increasing attendance at membership meetings. However, a good meal, an interesting topic to discuss and/or a well-known speaker will attract members and communicate that we want you to be part of this event.

Here is the perfect chance to be creative and try new ideas for making membership meaningful in your co-op.

While membership programs should be fun, take care not to be overly creative with the fundamentals. Pay attention to those aspects of membership programs which need to remain consistent -- creativity in record-keeping is rarely a good thing, for example. However, look for ways to breathe new life into routine areas and keep them from feeling stale:

  • Co-op Month might have the same type of events each year, but always with a new theme.
  • Types of classes and schdules may be fixed, but each year new presenters teach different aspects of the topics.
  • A membership drive may be held every spring, with new "premiums" for joining.
  • A standardized format for the newsletter, but with interesting and varied content, photographs, an interesting layout, and color can keep readers engaged.

A supportive membershp has a basic understanding of what it means to own and control the business. They recognize that in return for the benefits of membership, they have a responsibility to support the cooperaitve with patronage, invetment, and participation in its affairs. By systematically planning assessing and improving membership programs, you can build a supportive membership and a stronger foundation for a successful co-op.

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