Striking the Balance for Co-op Success

A truly successful co-op is one that not only runs a stellar store and keeps the books in the black. Such a co-op also makes room for co-op participants—owners, customers, and staff—to play a part in its forward momentum, in a space where they are given the chance to shape the future co-op.  If we think about the co-op as a place that reflects and acts on the values of its owners and works toward ends based on those values, then it’s critical that the co-op provide ways that owners can share in the accomplishment of those goals. 

Ideally, participation runs across the co-op at all levels: when each person can contribute to the achievement of co-op goals, they connect to the co-op on a level that creates meaning for them personally and as part of a wider community. This connection can create a co-op that is both purposeful and resilient. 

Co-op educator Brett Fairbairn’s Three Strategic Concepts model helps us think about the co-op in two distinct ways that overlap: 

• the membership, a group of people who come together around shared values to create a business; and 

• the operations of the business, how the co-op conducts itself as a business that allows owner values to be put into action. 

Where those two aspects—membership and operations—meet is in the fulfillment of members’ shared values, driven by the health of the business. (For background on Fairbairn’s concepts, see 

From ends to high-touch tactics

When a co-op has an engaged membership that has a strong, positive relationship with the co-op and management runs the business well, it has struck the delicate balance required for a successful co-op that can serve as a leader in community influence. 

Co-ops that strike this balance create goals that entice people to engage. By creating co-op goals at different levels, owners can become involved in their achievement at multiple points along the way, at various comfort levels, in spaces and times that work individually for them.

At the 30,000-foot level are the broad goals: ends policies that express the achievable, desired outcomes that result from all the co-op does. Although ends are thought about mainly at the board level, they can provide opportunities for the board to connect with owners to help shape the future co-op. Creating plenty of time for ends dialogues in board meetings and seeking feedback from owners are two pathways to participation at this level. 

The next level is interim goals, shorter-term than the ends but still high-level enough to have major impact on all participants and the community. Interim goals make ends concrete and provide identifiable ways to participate in co-op life. They capture the imagination, inspiring the ownership as calls to action. 

A great example of such interim goals is using the scorecard approach, which measures, tracks, and celebrates a set of co-op goals. Several co-ops showcase scorecards in their ends reports to measure a host of important co-op attributes, such as the diversity of staff, amount of waste collected, and percentage of local products sold. 

Interim goals provide real ways of achieving ends—but how do we keep participants engaged in goal accomplishment on a daily basis at the store level? We do it through projects, campaigns, and programs that move the interim goals forward and the co-op toward ends accomplishment. This is where the register round-up contributions, food bank collections, samplings and tastings, staff development and acknowledgement programs, and robust social media plans all fit: myriad high-touch ways for anyone to find personal meaning at their co-op. 

In our work through CDS Consulting Co-op with the early adopters of its Power of Participation (POP!) program, we’ve found great examples of co-ops working on that balance of understanding the needs of participants while maintaining high operational standards. These co-ops have invested resources that grow owner engagement and invite all, in multiple ways, to help achieve co-op goals. 

Hallmarks of co-ops that strike the balance 

Co-ops that strike the balance of operating a great store and maintaining an active participation culture have some things in common. Together, these ideas open pathways to engagement while staying focused on prospective outcomes. 

• Co-op leadership is intentional and transparent in goal design. Boards and general managers work together to design ends policies and interim goals that inspire participation across the co-op. Co-op goals are easy to identify and reflect co-op values in future-oriented ways. 

• Leadership brings owners and staff along through calls for input and feedback. Staff members, as the connectors between the organization and the shoppers and owners, have a special perspective on the co-op, and management has a responsibility to give them opportunities to offer that perspective. Boards represent all groups of the co-op and should be confident enough with their work to provide means for owners to lend a voice to big-picture discussions. 

• Leadership provides participants at all levels opportunities to contribute to the achievement of co-op goals. People in leadership need to acknowledge that there are many voices with different levels of desire to participate. Management invests in opening its doors through different types of events, projects, and campaigns and has an appreciation for every type of participant. 

• Leadership makes commitments to optimizing opportunities for participation. Providing the means for input and feedback and different ways to participate requires resources. Co-op leadership must be willing to provide the necessary support, systems, and capital to create paths to participation. 

Weaver Street Market

Through its 2020 Goals, Weaver Street Market (Carrboro, N.C.) gives owners opportunities to contribute to the co-op being a force for good in their community. Because co-op leadership has worked hard to define, focus, and promote the 2020 Goals, Weaver Street owners (who include both workers and consumers) know that their collective activities directly affect the co-op in positive, strategic ways. Their values are carried forward in the goal-oriented activities of the co-op through their participation. 

For example, Weaver Street donates gift cards to qualified community organizations that sponsor events that promote the 2020 Goals—make healthy food more accessible to the community, support local agriculture, invigorate downtowns, and protect the environment. The co-op also emphasizes local and co-op products at great prices as a way to provide a win-win-win every time a consumer buys these products.

Events at Weaver Street demonstrate the co-op as an engaging, inspired “third place” with something for everyone. The co-op’s 2016 annual meeting and co-op fair, held in September at the co-op’s 27,000-square-foot Food House commissary, introduced owners to expansion plans, gave them easy access to board members, and offered a means for owners to communicate their own ideas about co-op direction back to leadership. Local farmers and producers also came to the event, giving the owners the opportunity to connect with their food sources. The fair also offered owners the chance to share stories, sample food, tour the co-op, and meet staff.

Ruffin Slater, general manager at Weavers Street Market, describes it this way:  “Our goals resonate with co-op owners, and the trick is finding more ways that owners can participate in achieving them. We need to create a broad range of fun and meaningful opportunities so that everyone can participate as part of their normal routine.”

Central Co-op

Central Co-op (Seattle, Wash.) is a hub of action—a place where good ideas and plans for change and growth begin, are nurtured and turned into results that reflect the co-op’s overall mission. Strong communication channels and a “we’re in this together” attitude foster equity, camaraderie, and success.  

Themes of participation, ownership, and wellbeing for community and each other and the reiteration of cooperative principles are in nearly all messaging and communications. Central supplemented the co-op principles stewarded by the International Cooperative Alliance by adding principles that address the ecosystem, workers, skilled cooperative management, strategic leadership, and innovative culture. Its owner manual outlines the Central Co-op mission, owner guidelines, and owner rights and responsibilities, and it presents the co-op as part of a living, growing movement requiring owner participation as part of the deal. 

Understanding what it means to be part of a cooperative is reinforced in the co-op’s vigorous staff-orientation program, which covers everything about the co-op from what’s in the break room to product philosophy to employee conduct, commitment to the cooperative identity, and marketing the cooperative advantage.  

“Our cooperative principles are what set us apart from our non-co-op competitors, at the same time that they bind us to the global community. We see everything we do as an opportunity to market our cooperative advantage,” says Susanna Schultz, Central’s marketing director. “This ties specific activities at the co-op to our principles in a way that helps people see that our principles are more than just words on the wall.” 

Friendly City Co-op

Friendly City Food Co-op (Harrisonburg, Va.), leadership’s desire to make the co-op a space that is inviting, open, and a source of co-op knowledge for all who engage defines its participation culture and fosters its goal of integration into the fabric of the community.

The five-year-old co-op’s meeting space is an active place, and the marketing department designs a busy roster of classes, events, and tastings that are appealing to many. In a recent example, the co-op organized a “Spa Night” with a local beauty products company, and an area aesthetician gave facials to participants, each of whom came home with a goodie bag of samples. 

Giving staff the tools to make member services easy and fun is important at Friendly City and opens the door wide to new owners. A staff that is comfortable talking about the co-op in a genuine, personalized, empathic style will be able to reach far more potential members and connect with current owners. 

General Manager Steve Cooke says, "While we’re in an area with lots of co-ops, most shoppers are not familiar with consumer food co-ops. So we still get asked if anyone can shop here or if you need to be an owner, at least once a day. Giving our team an elevator speech to explain what it means to be an owner has simplified a complex issue into, ‘You can tell your friends you own part of a really cool grocery store.’”

River Valley Co-op

The leadership at River Valley Co-op (Northampton, Mass.) keeps the membership engaged with the achievement of co-op goals through strong input and feedback loops. Consequently, the co-op is an active reflection of the values of its participants. 

Opened in 2008, River Valley treats its owners as owners by providing clear and informative news from leadership and by asking for input along the way. The co-op’s beautifully designed annual report is jammed with progress updates and information about how the co-op is performing on its goals. It’s clear that owners’ input is exceedingly important to co-op operations, particularly as it pertains to capital issues such as expansion. 

The co-op’s annual membership meeting serves as an important, celebratory event for many members and an opportunity to connect with leadership on important issues in a fun, spirited environment. “Our recipe includes time for mingling and drinks, dinner, live music, a short business meeting which includes a speaker and Q & A, with dessert and dancing afterwards,” says General Manager Rochelle Prunty. “We’ve used art projects and poetry contests as part of our annual meeting as well as inviting community organizations to set up information tables.”  

And it’s not just fun once a year. At River Valley, respecting the environment provides opportunities for participation and is rewarded through the co-op’s Green Stamp program. Shoppers who bike to the co-op or bring their own bags accumulate stamps that they may exchange for groceries, cash, or a donation to the monthly community program voted on by the membership.

To review: having both business and membership facets are the co-op’s strengths, but they also make the co-op a tricky thing to lead. Yet mastering the balance of cooperative enterprise and association can be a fundamental advantage. When participants feel connected to the co-op’s desired outcomes, their understanding of the co-op model increases. Shared values being brought to action can serve as a powerful motivator to improve member loyalty and the co-op’s overall wellbeing and agility. 

A happy, healthy co-op is one where people have ways to find meaning through contributing to the strength of the co-op. When co-op leadership focuses on optimizing that connection between participants and their co-op’s goals, amazing things start to happen.

Photo: Friendly City Food Co-op tabling event

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