At Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli in Minneapolis, Minnesota, they saw the benefit of bringing members together over food. “If we promoted the annual meeting as ‘come hear from the board’ it would not be terribly compelling,” said Madeline Kastler, president of the board. “I believe framing it and treating it as a community event is really important.” Seward Co-op also offers a sit-down meal at the low cost of $5 for adults, and kids eat free. Their annual meeting attendance is also around 450 people, out of a membership of 8,000.
Kastler thinks that by putting the value of the meeting on building community, not just “talking at people,” it allows members to come and enjoy themselves by connecting with others. For Kastler, connection is what it’s all about. “It’s a huge component. Not only is the annual meeting an important link for the board to talk to the members, it’s also an opportunity to get information from the members.”
They’ve used a number of techniques that are fun, engaging and informative for this purpose. One was to do a “headline” activity of what members want to see about the co-op 20 years into the future. Another was a card exchange called the Human Shuffle wherein members would write down what was most important to them at the co-op and then pair up with other members and share their ideas. They were asked to assign point values to their ideas. “It was a really easy way to prioritize these lists from members,” Kastler said. Both activities went into creation of the board’s Ends policies.
Kastler also stressed the importance of board members consciously using the event for informal socialization with members. “We made of point of making sure that board members didn’t clump together, but split up among tables to introduce ourselves, meet members and have conversations. It’s one of the few opportunities we have to do that,” she said.
Puget Consumer Cooperative – Seattle, Washington
Although the Puget Consumer Cooperative (PCC) in Seattle, Wash. has multiple locations and 45,000 members, the co-op struggled for years with getting anyone to attend their annual meeting. It seemed like the same 30 – 40 people would come and use the meeting as an opportunity to gripe about the co-op.
Then in 2004, a member approached the board and gave them feedback that their approach to the meeting could be improved. She became an ad hoc member of the board that year and helped them design a new approach to the meeting that would eventually become a runaway success for the co-op. “We had hired a facilitator and asked members in attendance for their feedback. The grumbling stopped because we had a structured discussion,” said current PCC board administrator, Janice Parker.
By giving a firm format to the meeting and learning what would draw members, they were able to change what had been drudgery into a real celebration. Part of that process over the years has been to do a member survey on what topics related to the co-op would interest annual meeting participants, look for ways to engage those members for mutual benefit of the board and management, and promote the positive aspects of co-op membership — including the food. “We’re all about the food. We try to teach through fun activities,” said Parker.
Since the changes that were begun in 2004, attendance has steadily grown at the annual meetings, so much so that they now have two annual meetings for the members—one in the spring and one in the fall. One is focused on the board and elections, and the other on a topic of interest to the members. A full sit-down meal is served that highlights the talents of co-op chefs. The meal is no charge, but members must reserve in advance. Attendance at these meetings runs about 450 people. This past April they invited the National Organic Standards Board to discuss organic standards with their members (video will be available soon in the CBLD Library and on the PCC website). “We learned from our members that they want us to tackle more hard-hitting topics around food justice, politics and agricultural policy. The members are energized by these issues,” Parker said.
The outcome of all this engagement at the annual meetings has been impressive. They’ve held a retreat on member benefits, have developed an in-store sustainability department, expanded their involvement in fair trade, and the board is currently engaged in a study of childhood nutrition and local food systems. “It’s powerful what you can do when you start to engage more members in the bigger picture,” Parker said.