Ends: Defining Your Cooperative Advantage

This article is intended for everyone who is inspired or in any way impacted by cooperative principles. It focuses on defining the difference a cooperative makes in the world and the dramatic impact that fulfilling that difference can produce.

While intended primarily for boards of directors, this article is also useful to members (owners), consultants, affiliated institutions, and especially managers. It is about the future of each cooperative and the future of the food cooperative sector.

I magine what the world would be like if cooperatives didn't exist.

Ridiculous, you say? After all, given that eyes, hands and hearts are assiduously focused on creating and building cooperatives, why waste energy thinking about a world without them? Don't we have enough important work to do?

"Who your cooperative is in the community is your cooperative advantage"

Of course. Every action that contributes to the success of retail cooperatives is important. Cooperatives don't contribute anything if they are out of business.

But, what is success for a cooperative, or for the retail cooperative sector? What is all the doing and striving for? Here we are creating, innovating, setting goals, improving, cooperating, and working hard. Is it for market share, profitability, member satisfaction, availability of affordable healthful food, community, a better world, what?

Any response to that question is valid. We're all inspired and passionate about why we do what we do for cooperatives. However, consider that until the essence of a cooperative is differentiated -- the impact a cooperative could have in the world -- little is known about what success is. Little is known about what all the doing is for.

I remember when Weaver Street Market (WSM) opened in downtown Carrboro, North Carolina, in June 1988. Many people came to shop. New member T-shirts were popular on the local college campus; the expansive shady lawn in front of the cooperative quickly became a community gathering spot; the market became a ‘place to visit' in travel books. Early on, energy went into keeping the shelves stocked and working out glitches. Soon the outdoor space was a magnet for music, fairs and seasonal events. WSM became a sponsor of other community events. Over several years, activities and physical space expanded. Other businesses moved into downtown. Something was happening in downtown Carrboro.

Then, as in the course of every evolution, WSM faced a crossroad. How big do we grow? How do we grow? What do we take on? What don't we take on? In an area with a highly diverse demographic, whom do we serve? How and what do we plan for the future?

Everyone had some expectation about what the answers should be. Increasingly, board decisions and management decisions were analyzed and debated, often by those not on the board or in management. We all treasure the ferment and interchange of ideas, but without an appropriate venue to channel that energy, the result can be turmoil and discontent. And it was. WSM found itself expanding into and impacting the community, and in the absence of the board having clearly articulated who WSM is, the identity, direction, and future of WSM was subject to anyone's opinion.

Now, WSM did have a mission statement, plans and goals, and board members and management knew from their own points of view what the store was about and how it should and should not be run. Yet, when many people bring their own individual meanings to what should happen, the overall purpose is unclear and confusing. Also, as the WSM board would later discover when it adopted Policy Governance, the mission statements we are most familiar with say a lot about what a store does and what it's trying to do, but rarely do they say anything about what the store is for. This is the clear focus of why a cooperative exists.

Why Weaver Street Market? What difference does WSM make? What difference could WSM make? How do we define that difference? How do we translate it into policies so that as circumstances change or opportunities arise, the essence of the ‘why' is never lost? Could we capture the butterfly without losing the magic?

Fall 2001: Imagine puppetry, sand sculptures, bluegrass, wine tastings, local charities grilling chicken on the patio, jazz brunches, outdoor theater, Halloween costume contests. A sculpture designed as public art decorates a new garden pool built through cooperative effort in front of the café. The outdoor eating area borders the landscaped shaded walkway that joins the market with Panzanella, WSM's Italian restaurant, with its own outdoor eating area, located in the adjoining historic mill. The aroma of fresh-baked bread, sweets and meals wafts through the air from the bakery and kitchen fans. People gather in small groups throughout the day, in the store aisles, on the patio, on the lawn. Some catch up on paperwork or just take a moment to watch the day go by. Others sit alone with the newspaper. Even when alone, people can experience community.

At the worker level, WSM employees reflect the diversity of the community, and receive what they need to succeed -- bilingual employment aids, Spanish and English classes, orientations to working in America. In another part of town, a Mexican restaurant, a place for the local Hispanic community, has appeared through the support of WSM. A Cooperative Community Fund has been set up, a town revitalization workshop has been sponsored, owners (members) participate in focus groups, and two satellite stores are planned in outlying communities. A local newspaper, in an article on WSM's first satellite store, refers to WSM as "The Heart of a New Downtown"; the front lawn of WSM is said to be the "heart and soul of Carrboro."

People are drawn into the WSM experience. What draws them there? In my case, I drive twelve miles past two other food stores to do most of my shopping at the cooperative. The product is not the point. The point for me is that I trust the chain of commerce that has the product on the shelf for me to purchase. From the grower, to the producer, to the vendor to the employee unloading the truck and stocking the shelves, I trust how everyone is regarded, dealt with and compensated. I trust that I not only get value for my purchase, but that the dollars I spend are cycled directly back into the community in ways that benefit me and others. The trust is enriched by having a say in the fundamental values that drive everything that goes on. The whole experience leaves me satisfied and fulfilled.

Clearly changes occurred, and the WSM community is flourishing. The magic is still there. What guided all the choices and decisions?

What happened at WSM at the crossroad was a dramatic shift in context. Up to that point, board members and the general manager reacted to circumstances, based on what each thought was a good way to accomplish WSM's mission. Each person brought to the discussions and decision making their own sense of WSM and what was ‘right' for WSM from their point of view. Strategic planning was hammered out and agreed to, much like in any organization.

What was needed was defining meanings that would be common to the cooperative. This was provided when the board adopted Policy Governance, currently the most reliable vehicle for defining common perspectives and values for an organization. (For those of you not familiar with Policy Governance, see the references at the end.) With this model of governance, the board gained the capacity for strategic leadership -- defining WSM, setting it on a purposeful path and ensuring that the purpose is fulfilled.

The board took on creating an explicit purpose -- what to plan for -- that reflected the ownership (membership) and embraced what WSM had magically become and didn't want to lose. Now board members, management, and employees are thinking from the same place. WSM's purpose is "a vibrant, sustainable commercial center for the community of owners and potential owners, which is cooperative, ecological, primary, fair, inclusive, interactive, empowering, educational and is reliant on community support." And this guides every plan, project, activity, goal and action. Successes are no longer surprising accidents, they are deliberate. Projects, activities, approaches may change, even dramatically, over time. But focused on the essence of what WSM is, board members and management know relatively easily what works and what doesn't. WSM perspectives and values are clearly defined, which generates actions that fulfill the defined purpose.

In your cooperative, are board members, managers and members all ‘on the same page'? Have board members discussed and aligned on what the cooperative truly represents for its community? Are they aligned on the impact the cooperative will have?

The opportunity for every cooperative is to define its unique impact -- the difference that the cooperative makes in the world. If you think about it, who your cooperative is in the community is your cooperative advantage. If you know exactly who you are and what you will cause in the community, not only will everyone be working in the same direction for the same impact, but also the cooperative can take full advantage of every local or national opportunity to thrive as a business and still be who it is for its community.

How does a cooperative, or any organization create who it is -- the difference it will make in its world?

First, for those not familiar with Policy Governance, one concept of the Policy Governance model is Ends, a specific set of policies termed as such to avoid any confusion with the management terms "outcomes," "goals," and "results." Ends have an explicit meaning -- what will be in the world, because the organization exists, who will be affected, and what is it worth to have that difference made. (You can find out more about Ends in the Policy Governance references listed at the end of the article.) While I don't advocate using Ends outside the framework of Policy Governance, the unique definition of Ends provides a useful orientation for any cooperative as it grapples with defining a clear purpose. You'll note that Ends are very distinct from traditional mission or vision statements. These policies state powerfully and simply what the organization is truly about.

The surprising impact of Ends is that they place the purpose of the cooperative completely outside of what the cooperative does. Ends provide people with a clear intent of purpose, something they can be attracted to and find themselves engaging in. For example, WSM's "vibrant sustainable commercial center..." positioned WSM as a major catalyst in the community. While it had been a catalyst ever since it opened, this was more by accident than intent. However, once WSM explicitly stated what it was for, this purpose contributed to interest in creating downtown Carrboro as a walkable community. How to begin.? Beginning to define the difference a cooperative makes has no right way. The Policy Governance Fieldbook describes how various organizations, including WSM, created their own process to define Ends for themselves. (You will note that since that publication, WSM has gone a step further in defining its Ends statements.) I won't reiterate that description here. I'll focus instead briefly on what creating that process will take and some points to consider.

What will it take?

Trust yourself, as a board of directors. You define the difference the cooperative makes in the world. You are fully capable of defining Ends that ring true for the cooperative and the community it serves. Every cooperative board, no matter what its experience, has the intelligence and ingenuity to dream, create, and capture the essence of its cooperative. This work is the most critical contribution the board can make to the cooperative, and the board cannot delegate the responsibility. If you are a manager, consultant, or cooperative-affiliated institution, do all you can to encourage and support boards to step up to their ability and be successful.

Be open to discovery. You are in the unknown. We tend to resist the unknown, waiting to make sure we can make the right choices. However, have you ever been in a game where you don't know exactly which plays you'll make or exactly how it will go, but you know how to play and you're focused on winning? You start somewhere, you create a game strategy (process) and you take a first step. Then looking at what you have, you take the next step and the next.

Creating Ends is like that. You don't have to know everything. You do need to know, actually trust, that as a group the board will make the decisions it makes based on some agreed-upon way to proceed.

Attend to process. Good process facilitates actions. Be patient with yourself. Carefully attending to how information is gathered, what is discussed and how, and how decisions are made will result in actions that are much more effective. A strategic leader appreciates the importance of both decisive action AND effective process.

Trust your ability as a board, be open to what could be next, attend to process and be patient. You will progress and succeed in determining success for your cooperative.

Defining the difference a cooperative makes gives it the opportunity to succeed. Defining the difference in terms of Ends and operating with Policy Governance gives it the power to succeed.

Imagine if every cooperative explicitly defined its purpose -- its cooperative advantage -- and decisively accomplished it. Imagine what would be in the world.

The time to begin is now!

The Policy Governance Fieldbook, Caroline Oliver (ed.), Jossey-Bass, 1999.
CarverGuide #1: Basic Priciples of Policy Governance, John Carver, Miriam Carver, Jossey-Bass, 1996
CarverGuide #6: Creating a Mission That Makes a Difference, John Carver, 1997
Boards That Make a Difference (2nd ed.), John Carver, Jossey-Bass, 1997.

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