The Co-op Empowerment Stream

Our cooperatives are truly empowering organizations, in origin and in practice, in vision and in mission, in theory and in action. Empowerment can be a simple and clarifying concept. Yet often we find ourselves misguided and muddled in the empowerment process within cooperatives. I believe this confusion serves as a primary obstacle to the healthy development of cooperatives.

I wish to suggest a model for empowerment within our cooperatives that focuses initially and primarily on the role of members. While empowerment flows through the whole organization -- board, management, staff, customers -- it originates with and returns to the members. The empowering process in cooperatives is founded on building and sustaining the vital connection between members and their cooperative.

The empowerment model presented is perhaps simplistic and obvious, yet it is mostly unacknowledged and unarticulated in our organizations. Perhaps this is because "empowerment" has become an overused buzzword, or because it is associated in a negative way with authority. In a cooperative setting, however, empowerment is central to the organizational purpose and process. Cooperation cannot be successful without effective empowerment.

To empower is to "give power or authority to, to give ability to, enable, permit." While "empower" is an action verb, the type ofaction is easily missed in the daily demand and stress of running a business. The subtle "giving" associated with empowerment is often lost in the give and take of the marketplace.

A group of people coming together to form a cooperative to meet member needs is a self-help, empowering action that cannot be lost sight of as the organization matures. Articles of incorporation and bylaws invest the organization with legal power. Yet we may ask, how does effective empowerment continue beyond this important founding step? How can we visualize empowerment in our cooperatives?

The responsibilities of members in a cooperative differ from the responsibilities of members in a social club or non-profit organization. Members in cooperatives (for-profit corporations) are the owners and thus have added responsibilities. Electing the board of directors is an added and primary responsibility of cooperative members. This empowering act is specified in the articles and bylaws, accompanied by description of the role and authority of the membership and the board. How empowered the board is and how much authority is given to the board by the membership varies from co-op to co-op and is a good indicator or model for empowerment throughout the co-op.

From this important act of the membership empoweringa board ofdirectors, we can construct an empowerment stream flowing through the organization -- in which the board empowers management, management empowers staff, staff empowers customers, customers empower the community. This empowerment flow benefits the cooperative and its members and enriches the community, which is the source of members.

This model of cooperative empowerment features a system that can promote leadership development, a shared vision, delegation of authority, accountability, support, mentoring, sustainability, and growth. These qualities are inherent in the cooperative model and are enhanced when we develop and emphasize the empowering process. I believe this empowerment model is also compatible with and can enhance the policy governance model for board development that many cooperatives have recently adopted.

The ingredients are all there. How can we stir the stew and make it work best for us? The recent statement of cooperative values and revision of the cooperative principles provides opportunity for empowerment to be further developed in our cooperatives.

Clarifying roles

Viewing cooperatives as empowering organizations is a critical component to role clarification. The empowerment stream further clarifies and enhances roles within the cooperative, including members, board, management, and staff. All roles, effectively working together, are important since they each contribute to empowerment and inspire success.

In the empowerment stream, the modeling of empowerment best happens upstream. Yet there is often lack of awareness at these initial stages or levels. Not many members vote. Quorums are sometimes lacking. How many candidates have come forward to run for the board of directors? Is the board truly elected and empowered? Does the board feel empowered? In my observation, the board often compensates for feeling unempowered (or, shudder, for feeling empowered) and -- instead ofcontinuing the empowerment stream by empowering management -- is primarily concerned with empowering the membership. This, in effect, thwarts and reverses the natural flow of the empowerment stream. While the board may be well intentioned ("How can we get our members more involved?" "Should we let the members decide?"), here is the result:

  • The board's primary focus becomes empowering the membership when it should be empowering management (hiring, directing, evaluating, supporting). The members have empowered the board to empower management to, in turn, create an exciting store that meets the needs of the members and the community.
  • The board and the co-op make members and potential members feel guilty for not being appropriately involved in the co-op.
  • Management and staff are not adequately empowered to do their job, and effectively modeled empowerment is lacking in the co-op. Roles and job descriptions are unclear, responsibility is discouraged and authority denied, teamwork is lacking, frustration builds, and morale suffers, all resulting in poor customer service.

I suggest that the board's primary focus is to empower management and to model empowerment in the organization. This does not mean that the board neglects its important role of linkage with members. Linkage with members should not be confused with empowering members. While the board has an actual role in linkage with members, part of that role is symbolic. Additionally, the board needs to assure that management and staff are appropriately integrating "membership" into "marketing" and in turn being effective with member relations and membership promotion, building the vital connection between members and their co-op.

Staff development

Staff development is facilitated when commitment to empowerment is a value deeply held within the cooperative. As many of us may recall from our co-op's formative stage, there were strongly stated values such as workplace democracy, consensus decision-making, volunteerism, collective meetings, etc. While many workers were eager to take on responsibility, often responsibility was assumed without any supporting authority. Martyrs, poor performance and burn-out were some of the consequences. As our co-op's management structures have evolved with clearer lines of accountability, it has continued to be a challenge to empower management and staff with the necessary authority and support so that they can be successful in their jobs.

The natural food retail co-ops that have survived and prospered have done so in large part by gaining skills in empowerment. "Delegate or die" has a real ring of truth. The building of a strong management team by a general manager is a primary way of building the capacity of a cooperative business. As we examine the leading co-ops, we find that they have strong management -- including not just a strong general manager but also a skilled team of managers and department heads -- and empowerment is a strongly held value. They walk the talk. Empowering staff is a key strategy for success in today's competitive and changing marketplace.

Membership: foundation and opportunity

"Membership," if strategically developed, can be a tremendous advantage for cooperatives. Yet if your co-op sits back and assumes that a customer will buy from you just because you are a cooperative and just because that customer is a member, then your days are numbered. Membership as the "cooperative advantage" can he realized, however, with a fully developed program that features membership as ownership, economic advantage, and service to the community. The natural empowerment stream, with its genesis anchored in the membership and board of directors, provides direction, leadership, and energy to the cooperative and, in turn, the community. The role of the membership and the board of directors is critical to the success of the cooperative. The symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers is fully present in a co-op's membership base and throughout the organization. Not all members will desire to be involved or active in their co-op. That's okay. Some members will come forth as leaders. Opportunities and options for participation should be varied and available to all members, letting each member choose what is appropriate for them -- from noninvolvement to active involvement.

Community is highly valued and desired in the world we live in. As the products and services our cooperatives have championed and brought to the marketplace become readily available in the mass market, community ownership as a distinguishing and valued feature of our cooperatives will grow in importance. Cooperatives create community.

We are fortunate in being able to observe an earlier generation of cooperatives and how they evolved as they encountered an increasingly competitive marketplace. Growth, economies of scale, regionalizing, and merger all resulted. Business survival/success often came at the expense of the "cooperative" side of the organization. Cooperatives often neglected their connection with their members in the interest of short-term survival and growth, weakening their overall position in the marketplace.

As our generation of cooperatives moves from birth through adolescence and into maturity, it is critical that we build and maintain a vital connection with our members. The empowerment stream, actualized and flowing, is the foundation for building that vital connection. Cultivating a culture where members will feel proud of their co-op and proud to be a member is the aim.

Establishing benchmarks of performance related to membership and member equity will help guide your co-op in building that vital connection. Suggested benchmarks:

Members/Retail Sq. Feet(Suggest 1:1)
Percent of Sales to Members(At least 50%)
Equity as % of Assets(50%, varies)
Sales/Member/Week(Per capita food $/wk.)
Net New Members/Year(% growth at least half
 of % sales growth)
Percent of Member Voting(10-15% to begin with)

Ways to Build the Vital Connection Between Members and Their Co-op

  1. Member/customer survey at least every two years, with comparable format.
  2. Capital drive (equity and/or loans) that is tied to a long-range plan that members will support.
  3. Regular membership drives.
  4. Celebrations and praise.
  5. Community events and sponsorship.
  6. Community visibility: "I'm proud to be a member!"
  7. Continuous education on cooperative ownership.
  8. Clarity and visibility of values (vision/mission).
  9. Annual report that is attractive and informative.
  10. Annual report that is attractive and informative.
  11. Clear and specific opportunities for valued participation without forcing it or inducing guilt for non-participation.
  12. A dynamic newsletter including member testimonials.
  13. A visible and effective board that symbolizes leadership.

The natural empowerment stream flowing through our cooperatives stimulates all areas of the organization, especially the co-op's ability to fulfill its stated mission. Empowerment is both a leadership skill and a tool for building leaders. It is an essential component in the growth strategies that many co-ops are pursuing. Empowerment must be developed and sustained by continuous education and learning -- for our members, directors, managers and staff. Cooperation and empowerment join naturally and support each other. The model of the empowerment stream, flowing from the membership, allows us to approach our work within our co-ops and communities with a commitment to sustainability and change. Let's encourage the flow.

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