Within a consumer cooperative, the purpose of electing the board of directors from among the owners is to democratically control the co-op. All fiduciary responsibility for the cooperative rests with the board of directors. Consequently, everything that happens because of the cooperative happens because of the board of directors.
How do we make our board elections meaningful in this context? This is not democracy practiced in the abstract; this is, profoundly, applied democracy. This is democracy within multi-million dollar businesses with significant competitive pressures. It requires that cooperative owners have an appreciation of the role of the board, of the identity of the cooperative, and of its strategic challenges and opportunities.
Education and learning are key to successful democracy; we must share information transparently throughout our cooperative. Can we articulate the difference our co-op makes in our community? Can we explain how our board of directors functions – can we share the amazing sense of a group wisdom that is greater than the sum of its parts? Can we inspire confidence in our ability to meet an uncertain future?
Learning together – about our cooperative enterprise, the role of the board, and the desired qualities in our directors – is a good foundation for creating strong leadership. In a meaningful election, there are strong candidates on the ballot, and voters have enough information to help them understand the choice they are making.
Potential directors need to demonstrate integrity and be in accord with the board’s code of conduct. Board members need to be strong enough within themselves to contribute positively to a group decision-making process. They need to accept the board’s governing system and be willing to learn to use it. Excellent board members take the long view, and they are curious and open to learning.
Directors should be able to consider issues with an open and critical mind. The integrity of the board’s decisions is of paramount importance. Consequently, board members must be willing to stand behind policies determined by the board, regardless of positions taken prior to a vote, and to support the manager when the manager is acting under the authority of and in compliance with board policy.
To ensure meaningful elections, every board should be working to attract candidates, using a purposeful process that is active throughout the year. Every cooperative should be teaching about the board’s role and fostering awareness and appreciation of the value the board brings.
Let’s use our board elections to have real conversations about the things that matter to our co-op. Let’s be a model for positive democracy, where the goal of the annual board election is to choose from among us the best leaders for the times we are in.