When the Whole Foods Co-op board in Duluth, Minn. decided to undertake a “listening” project, they were not following any hunches about what they perceived the members and community wanted from the co-op. Mostly, the board was motivated to do it because they’d been disappointed in their annual meeting attendance and voting participation. The co-op was settled in its location and all was good, but the board was concerned that their links to members were not strong enough. So they wanted to begin the work of thinking about what would be next for the co-op. “It was very important for them to hear from our members in a way that went beyond our usual co-op channels,” said Sharon Murphy, general manager.
Their listening project took the better part of the year. They held numerous invitation-only meetings wherein they invited specific stakeholders to come and discuss one very important question: What other things do you want from the co-op? They invited members who were top shoppers, local growers, random members and others to the sessions. Additionally, they conducted open listening sessions at community events to get even broader feedback. “People suggested all kinds of big things, community gardening, education around food and eating,” said Murphy ticking off all of the ideas.
After they’d reached a consensus on the top ten themes that arose from the listening sessions, the co-op did a store survey. They broke from tradition with one question and asked survey participants to prioritize the ten themes. The most prominent idea to emerge was the concept that the co-op should be more involved in the Duluth community. “They wanted us to go beyond what’s on our shelves and put more resources toward the bigger picture,” Murphy said.
The board set to work developing a new ends policy on partnering with local organizations to create a healthy community, and left the interpretation its implementation to the general manager and her staff. Initially, she said, it was daunting to think about the scope of what the members said they wanted the co-op to do, along with the level of expectation and empowerment the board was giving her to carry it out.
In conjunction with her management team, Murphy decided that each team member, as part of his or her job, would participate in a community organization. From these new connections the co-op has co-sponsored a regional food system conference with the University of Minnesota that led to a green jobs initiative, they are creating a community farm in the city, hosted an Eastside-Westside block party that drew hundreds of people together around having a safe and walk able community, as well as launching a greenhouse project to extend the growing season in Duluth. All this in addition to the myriad connections that their involvement has berthed. “Each time we’ve gotten involved, something pretty cool happened,” said Murphy. “All this is starting to bring people together from other groups and it’s not just us doing all the work. It’s very exciting. The board listening process empowered members and ourselves.”