Maintaining Co-op Democracy

As a member of the Willy Street Co-op board in Madison, Wisc., I'm interested in creative ways to stimulate member participation in our cooperative. We held an annual meeting last August and involved 80 people in an evaluation of the co-op, receiving both positive comments about what's working well and constructive feedback about how we can make things better. These comments have been forwarded to management as well as to the board of directors for follow-up action, which is key to obtaining further member involvement.

This article will consider ways to involve members and discuss some theory regarding member participation in general, reviewing where we've been as a movement and perhaps where we're going. I recently read a book entitled Making Membership Meaningful, written by the International Joint Project on Co-operative Democracy, which stimulated my thinking and from which I will be drawing in this article. All quotations, unless noted, are from this book, a key principle of which is that "a participating membership is fundamental for the future success of cooperatives." Put another way, "the future of cooperatives in the 21st century will be governed by whether they can [involve] the potential of their members."

The premise that a cooperative consists of a group of people coming together to solve common problems shifted to the concept of co-ops as organizations that supply goods and services to individual consumers to meet individual needs.

In Japan, the co-ops, which are mostly retail food and buying clubs, have created a network of activities for member involvement. These fields of activity range from peace to the environment, from health to welfare, and include Japanese flower arranging, tea ceremony, languages and calligraphy. In each region, annual presentations of these activities are held, providing time for meeting and exchanging views.

In Scotland, a cooperative is the biggest retailer and promotes co-op auxiliaries such as the Women's Guild, Woodcraft Folk, a co-op political party, dance classes, a brass band, various environmental groups and the creation of a credit union available only to members of the cooperative.

In Italy, co-ops have stressed the importance of a social agenda and have developed a social audit to evaluate annual progress toward achieving social goals. One such goal resulted in a national campaign opposing pesticide use. Over one million petitions were sent to Italian lawmakers suggesting the introduction of new legislation restricting the use of pesticides. The co-op has also taken active steps to establish a recycling plant, and the retail co-ops serve as collection points for various types of recyclables.

Canada's Co-op Atlantic is a federated, second-tier cooperative responsible for 19% of overall grocery sales in its region. Co-op Atlantic is working hard to revive relations with members -- i.e., local cooperatives -- through active member relations committees, co-op newsletters more focused on local initiatives and member focus groups in local co-ops when concerns arise over merchandise policy, for example. Co-op Atlantic is also actively supporting the formation of new cooperative enterprises, including worker co-ops, through local co-op development councils that help people draw on the resources and expertise of other co-ops, Co-op Atlantic, unions, and credit unions.

These are just some international examples of co-ops that believe and practice the theory that a link exists between long-run economic success and long-term democratic processes. Co-ops that were founded in the first half of the 20th century assumed that members would be people who were close to one another socially and geographically and who would join to solve common problems. However, social, economic and political environments changed dramatically during the last half of the 20th century, when most of our food co-ops were being formed, and these assumptions no longer applied. Co-op members have become more geographically diverse, and the degree to which they share or act upon needs in common has become less clear. In many cases, opportunities for spontaneous, direct, and participatory democracy were reduced or absent altogether. This trend has led to more formalized democratic options, where election at an annual meeting is viewed as providing legitimacy to a board of directors.

The premise that a cooperative consists of a group of people coming together to solve common problems shifted to the concept of co-ops as organizations that supply goods and services to individual consumers to meet individual needs. This shift has had profound consequences, not the least of which is that "the consumer/member is not seen to have any strong need to interact with others in an association of members." Thus, over the years, co-ops have begun to conceptualize themselves as comprised of two somewhat incompatible features: the "association" and the "business." Priority is often given to the business side, as in the phrase, "without the business, there would be nothing to participate in." This feeling, combined with the focus on members as individual consumers for whom the co-op provides goods and services, easily leads to a representative democracy with limited opportunities for participation and an emphasis on the business background of the elected leaders.

By the late 1980s, business gains for cooperatives had slowed in some parts of the world, and co-ops began to run into substantial difficulties. This experience led some to conclude that perhaps the long-term solution lay in the co-op principles and in member participation. Specifically, two aspects of democratic participation were seen to influence success: (1) the role members play in financing the cooperative and (2) the proximity of decision makers to member/consumers.

The greater the role members play in financing the cooperative, the greater is the sense of ownership which members experience. They are more likely to get involved, show up for meetings or work on a project or activity when they feel a sense of ownership in the cooperative.

With regard to proximity of decision makers to member/consumers, proximity implies closeness and immediacy. Decision makers include management and the board of directors. Each makes different decisions regarding the co-op and each may take steps to ensure closeness or involvement of members in decision-making. The board's decision-making areas include establishing a structural framework for the organization and business (including articles of incorporation, bylaws, policies), protecting member assets (ensuring management performance) and articulating the vision/mission or ends policies that establish the difference the co-op will make in the world. The general manager (or management) decision-making areas include operations and products as well as the application of resources to achieve the mission or ends as established by the board.

It's important to remember that democracy is a process, not a static product. Democracy is always in flux and it has ebbs and flows. To me, the phrase member relations suggests participatory democracy, which in turn suggests members' participation, commitment and involvement. Participation means to take part or to involve people in decisions. The ways to engage members may be unique to each co-op, yet co-ops can learn from each other.

The proximity of the co-op's decision-makers to members/consumers can be established and maintained in these ways:

  • Remind members that co-op has open membership and that all may join and participate.
  • Hold annual membership meetings encouraging member participation in ways that may make their attendance more meaningful to them and the co-op.
  • Publish a co-op newsletter regularly and encourage members to participate by reading it and contributing articles from time to time.
  • Have suggestion boxes available in the co-op for member comments and respond to members about their requests.
  • Conduct regular member surveys to determine member preferences and shopping habits. (See sidebar.)
  • Hold member focus groups on specific topics related to long-range plans, co-op policies, and/or product selections.
  • Conduct long-range, visionary planning (this distinguishes the co-op from its competition) and publish vision and purpose statements, values statements, goals and co-op plans.
  • Establish a board nominations committee to determine election processes and terms of office, recruit board nominees, and outline board responsibilities.
  • Publish and visibly provide membership promotional materials.

Why Do a Customer/Member Survey?

There are a lot of different ways to obtain information about your shoppers and members. Questions to ask yourself include: What information do you need at this time and for what purpose do you need it?

Often the starting point for learning more about owners and potential owners who shop at your store involves a survey. Doing a customer/member survey can assist you in establishing a profile of your shoppers and owners. In addition it can provide you with the opportunity to test some of your assumptions on a particular topic. If you have outlined possible actions to consider, the results of a survey can assist you in determining which ones are appropriate to your needs.

If you have not done a customer/owner survey before or for a long time (four or more years), or your customer base has changed (or grown), you may want to consider doing a standard survey to establish a baseline of information from which to make future comparisons.

Many co-ops choose to do a customer/owner survey every two years or so to maintain a current profile of their shoppers and owners, and often they will test an assumption regarding current preferences, behaviors, attitudes or opinions. The results of a well worded survey question can suggest areas for followup and guide you in determining what other information you need for your decision making.

General Managers and Board Directors at co-ops often have different requirements of a customer survey. Managers may want to understand how the products and services offered by their store are meeting customer needs, whereas a Board might want to identify suitable media for communicating with members.

Whatever your reason for considering a survey is, don't put it off! If you are interested in learning more about member surveys, identifying resources for doing them, or would like Cooperative Development Services to assist you in any part of the process, please contact us!

-- Peg Nolan, CDS

Community building partnerships

There are many examples of ways in which co-ops are creating additional opportunities for members and community involvement. Some that I know of are listed below:

  • Make space available within the co-op for meetings and activities not directly related to the co-op's business.
  • Find ways to connect the co-op to social change: environmental work, peace activism, sustainable food practices, etc.
  • Develop structures such as surveys or focus groups to determine member needs and interests.
  • Involve members in growing food for the co-op.
  • Provide services to members such as home delivery or volunteer assistance for seniors or differently-abled persons.
  • Promote recreational opportunities for members or work together on community activities such as fundraising for a community project or event.
  • Allocate reserves to benefit community projects or member-supported events.
  • Utilize the board committee structure to promote member involvement in various activities.
  • Make active reference to vision and mission statements and revise these statements to keep them timely and current.
  • Involve members in discussions around expansion of any sort. Listen!
  • Hold management accountable for meeting annual membership growth targets.
  • Take responsibility for strengthening the community economy by: taking an interest in protecting consumer rights, democratic participation, promotion of training in co-op principles, establishing progressive wage and benefits packages and supporting and encouraging expansion of co-op businesses in the community.

Build connection to mission/ends statements

The idea of developing vision and mission statements is common at co-op long-range planning sessions. If I read my co-op's vision statement and it encourages me to get involved with my co-op because I too share this vision, then the vision statement has contributed to member participation.

Similarly, mission statements can help members understand the role the co-op seeks to play in the world, community or neighborhood, and thereby encourage their involvement in such projects. Such statements may also contribute to member loyalty or attract new members to the co-op. One co-op vision statement reads: "We envision a peaceful community where people, society and nature live in harmony."

Co-op Atlantic's vision statement from the 1990s reads:

"We share a vision of people working together to achieve our potential; to improve our social and economic well-being; and to produce and consume what we need through institutions that root social and economic power in community organizations. We recognize the interdependence of persons and organizations and the need for effective and responsive links. We pursue our vision through cooperatives -- organizations based on fairness, equality and mutual self-help."

The vision statement recently developed by Ukiah Natural Foods in Ukiah, California reads:

"We envision Ukiah Natural Foods to be the foundation of a trusted, cooperative marketplace of goods and services that provides for the needs of our diverse community."

Their purpose statement goes on to explain how Ukiah Natural Foods is to be "a vital, thriving and growing community center that will [among other things] provide and promote organically grown, sustainably produced food, goods and services that are locally and regionally sourced whenever possible." A member may know of a local producer to refer to the co-op, or might get involved on a committee to work on finding regional sources of organic food. Without these statements available in the co-op the member might never know the co-op has an interest in pursuing such things.

Commitment and loyalty to any business is built through the everyday workings of the organization and the way people are treated every time they encounter the business. The co-op advantage is perceptible in a co-op where members understand their proximity to the decision-makers, have a variety of opportunities to stay informed about the co-op and its practices, and participate in co-op related activities.

As co-ops grow larger it becomes more and more challenging to maintain the "associative" side of the cooperative. Many co-ops are experimenting with ways to compensate for their larger size in order to remain more participatory and democratic. Some of these include: wide sharing of responsibilities and skills, developing a member relations committee or team, providing co-op education, rotating leadership tasks, discussing business imperatives and a variety of ways they can be met, and articulating and following a cooperative vision.

How would we like society to be in the future? And how will our cooperative be involved in bringing this vision about? If a participating membership is fundamental for the future success of cooperatives, then co-ops must actively seek to promote member participation and to make member participation meaningful. The days of member volunteers sweeping the floor may not be completely over, but there are many more creative ways to involve members in bringing about the co-op's vision for the future or in providing feedback on the job the co-op is doing today.

Do you have any feedback? Ideas you have tried? Stories of member-linkage success (or otherwise)? Feel free to share them with Cooperative Grocer or with the author. <

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