Putting Your Best Slate Forward

Some co-op leaders consider their organizations fortunate to find enough people just to fill the vacant seats on the board. But warm bodies are never enough. And imagine the stakes when, as at Puget Consumers Co-op, the co-op has over $25 million in sales annually, is beyond 35,000 active member households, and operates 6 natural foods stores and a central office.

For our board election this past year, Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC), based in Seattle, was rewarded with the difficulty of choosing from among eight well qualified candidates for four seats. Perhaps our experience in finding such candidates will be helpful to your co-op.

Each year, PCCs nine member board of directors typically has three open positions to be filled by election of the membership. Candidates are on the ballot either by nomination or by petition. At the same time that board members are elected, the members elect a nominating committee.

The nomination process, and the work of the comittee, can be divided into six phases: assessment, outreach, network utilization, recruitment, selection, and finally the presentation of candidates to the members for their vote.

Assessment phase

The appropriate time to begin is within a month or two of the previous election. First, prepare a timetable for action, considering various deadlines -- the election period, the annual meeting, newsletter copy dates, and the down time around the holidays. Then determine how many candidates per vacancy you want to nominate and what skills you are looking for.

To make that assessment, find out what skills the board already has, what it still needs and what it will need when outgoing directors' terms expire. For example, your assessment may determine that the current board has sufficient personnel, planning and finance skills but is lacking in marketing and will be losing legal skills at the end of this term. Thus you would actively recruit forthese skills. Also consider the board's minority and male/female representation in your goals as a committee.

Sources for assessment information are current and past directors, co-op management, and board committee members. This phase need last no more than a month.

Outreach phase

This phase begins in the second month and continues until the selection phase -- and beyond, for use in future years. Let others, your membership and other co-ops, know your co-op needs board members and what the rewards for being a director are -- that is, speak to "what's in it for me?" Remember, you are recruiting volunteers, and the compensation is probably largely intangible - all the more important to spell it out for them. To find out what your directors do get out of serving, interview past and present board members and quote them. Some responses we heard were: "It's a hands-on M.B.A." and it gives "the satisfaction of working for the way the world ought to be."

Let your members know what is required of directors, especially the time commitment, the existence of legal and fiduciary responsibilities, and the election process timeline. You can do this through your newsletter, bag stuffers, flyers and posters in the stores.

Network utilization phase

This phase begins around the third month and also continues to the selection phase and beyond. It involves gathering names of potential candidates through nominating committee members and through other networks, such as board committees, store councils, staff members and active volunteers (both a great source of names), other co-ops and your professional services people -- attorney, accountant, consultants. Using information from your assessment of board needs, for example, you might contact a human resources consultant for people with personnel skills; ask your attorney for potential candidates with legal skills; your accountant for financial skills; and so on.

Put the names you've garnered in a file for reference during your recruiting year as well as for future years. We find many people who say, "Call me in the next couple years." Keeping track of such references provides a mechanism for continuity between nominating committee terms.

For those who show nomination interest, we send a packet which includes the bylaws, an organization chart on elections, timetable, director requirements, and an application for nomination.

Recruiting phase

This phase begins around the fourth month and, again, continues to the selection phase and beyond. Here you are encouraging people to submit an application for nomination. We suggest that you ask what skills the applicant has to offer the board, why they are interested in serving, and require references who can speak to the applicant's business and volunteer experiences. For directors seeking re-election, ask why they want to run again and what they have accomplished in their past term. If you have staff who are applicants, ask what channels within the co-op they already have utilized to effect change, what were the results, and how did they deal with those results.

Next, nominating committee members individually meet with potential candidates to assess their motivation, commitment and skills, and, if the person looks promising, to sell board service as an experience not to be missed. But don't gloss over anything. The last thing you want are directors who feel that they were hoodwinked into running or weren't given the whole picture. At PCC, we have a meeting for potential candidates to hear PCC's legal and financial experts explain a director's legal and fiduciary responsibilities; we also cover conflict of interest and campaign guidelines. In addition, board meeting packets are sent to each candidate, and they are encouraged to attend some board meetings.

The whole process of recruiting is like being a bank loan officer: first you have to get the customer to want your product or service enough to apply for the loan (i.e., submit their application for nomination); then you have to assess their creditworthiness (their skills); then you still have to get it by the credit committee (i.e., the rest of the nominating committee). After all, it is the owners' investment which is at stake!

Selection phase

In the sixth and seventh months, the nominating committee selects candidates. The nominating committee reviews the applications, holds group interviews and checks references. Some useful interview questions are, "Tell us which skill areas you are strongest in and where those strengths come from," and, "Share a volunteer experience where you were frustrated and how you dealt with that frustration."

Since the nominating committee as a whole makes the selection, the more people on the committee who have the same information base to work from, the better. We had each member review each application, and more than half of the committee present for each interview. For references, by using a speaker phone your entire committee can simultaneously hear the references's comments.

For the final selection, we found a matrix useful. Applicants were along one axis and qualifications along the other, those being the skill areas needed on the board, but not necessarily from each director (e.g., planning, finance, personnel and labor relations, co-op movement and philosophy, natural foods and nutrition, retail or wholesale business management, and marketing), as well as specific traits that each director needed to possess (e.g., communication and group process skills, time commitment).

We plotted each applicant on the matrix. From this, it became clear which applicants were strongest and also revealed who we had serious doubts about. Others warranted further discussion, so we then reflected on such things as learning curves - how long before the applicant would be able to contribute to the board.

We had references for about fifty individuals, which resulted in thirteen applicants for four positions open. We declined five of the applicants and nominated two candidates for each position.

Presentation phase

This takes place in the eighth and ninth months and involves candidates answering the membership's questions in various forms. At the annual meeting, we asked, "Tell us about a situation, preferably in a group, where you had to allocate scarce resources (time and/or money and/or people) among multiple worthy endeavors," and, "What decisions has the board made recently that you agreed/disagreed with and why?"

In the two newsletter issues preceding the election, we probed with, "Give an example of a group situation where you participated in making a tough decision and had to deal with the consequences of that decision," and, "What do you want the board to accomplish this next term and how do you expect to aid in accomplishing that objective?"

Time to vote

The election is held in months ten and eleven. The newly elected directors, not just warm bodies but qualified and committed members, began their terms within weeks of the ballot count.

And so goes the cycl

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