When boards and management make decisions with the long game of co-op impact in mind, a powerful relationship with owners can develop. Strategic decision-making can be an opportunity to build a strong, participatory co-op culture that understands that the leadership is obliged, by virtue of its fiduciary responsibility, to make decisions to benefit the co-op and accordingly, its owners.
Owners typically have high expectations for their retail food co-ops: they expect financial AND social benefits in return for their equity, patronage and participation. They expect a high level of transparency in business and board dealings, and consistent, clear communications about major changes and events. They expect management and the board to respond to their queries as owners. They expect members-only discounts. Above all, they expect that the co-op be a transformative institution—a decisive, agile business that is responsive to market conditions, one that not just meets the community’s needs, but exceeds them.
Meeting these expectations is a tall order. The board must have the ability to think strategically long term and consistently study and learn to understand what the present owners not only wish for, but will need from their future co-op. And meanwhile, in the present, management must be able to make and plan for operational decisions that drive the board’s future thinking—while running an exceptional store in the present. When the board and management have worked together to think about how best owners will benefit by the decisions they make, the impact of the decision can have far more lasting results that can shape the character of the co-op.
Here are some ways that boards approach owner engagement more strategically:
Strategize for the future. Try some big picture thinking around possibilities for the next big decision. In consultation with the GM, the board could sketch out a range of future conditions, what the consequences of your decision would look like in those conditions, and how you might benefit from or respond to those consequences. Some co-ops use scenario planning to build alignment and tap into their industry and community knowledge to provide added perspective.
Have a good balance of “push and pull” communications. There are a number of ways the board can give and receive information to owners. The board can send out “push” communications—without expectation of feedback, such as a newsletter article or blog post or pull communications, which solicit input from owners, such as surveys. “Push/pull” are two-way, such as a board Q & A session or a Facebook post that seeks owner comments.
Overall, using social media is a great place to engage in conversation with owners and future owners. Work with your co-op’s marketing team to get some training to know how to comment successfully and respond to negativity and have a solid social media policy so that rules of engagement are in place. Remember that when people engage in conversation on social media, it’s because they may be emotionally invested in their co-op. These are issues that really matter to them.
Make a commitment to developing a dialogue about board issues. Because the board’s role in a co-op is often misunderstood, developing good agreements with your store’s management about who will engage in what conversation is important. Board conversations typically will be most effective at engaging members at a broad rather than a detailed level. Once a solid process is agreed on for separating out those member communications the board strategically should respond to or engage around, dialogue between board and owners can be amazing!
It’s worth noting that this kind of dialogue may make a board initially feel vulnerable, but the reward for opening up with a push/pull communication strategy is a membership that trusts the board and the democratic process. Owners are far more likely to go along for the ride with the board when they feel like their input is not only heard, but valued and utilized as part of the decision-making course of action.
To help build a meaningful dialogue, gIve your possible decisions a test drive before engaging with owners. Consider
- What are the benefits to current owners and future owners?
- How will you tell the story about this decision so that most members will see the benefits either for themselves or for others?
- What are the long term and short term consequences/results to receiving such a benefit? To the individual? To the co-op? To both?
Be empathetic. It’s critical that boards step outside of their own roles and into owners’ shoes to attempt to get a sense of how their decision-making affects them. Boards need to think not only about what they are communicating to owners, but how they are communicating to them. Owners need to feel like they are being sought out and brought along for the ride in the decision-making process. Think creatively about new ways to engage owners via communication, participation activities and board meeting design. One of things they want is the feeling of engagement, not just the facts. Work with the GM and marketing staff to brainstorm ideas to capture the hearts and minds of owners at all levels of engagement.
Case in Point: A good example of using the board’s voice to advance a conversation with owners is the annual discussion about whether owners would like to receive their patronage dividends or keep the money in reserve for a project down the line. Sometimes we’ve noticed that leadership has a tendency to assume that owners will only tolerate short term benefits, that they must be “paid out” in order to feel like they’ve been adequately benefited. In our experience, often times the benefits of long-term decision-making aren’t explicit at first glance or may feel more difficult to message than something short-term and immediate. Effectively communicating the story of the members’ “common wealth” may not always be a super easy conversation to have, but it’s an important one that the board is in a strong position to bring forward, because it connects the success of owner’s patronage to their values around social responsibility and the community. In planning how to have that conversation, remember that social media provides a great platform on which that insightful dialogue can happen.
The Last Words:
Board communication is important, but keep in mind, that other traffic is likely to be higher frequency—marketing programs, products and services that are keys to the co-op’s success. You’re not the only voice communicating from the co-op to owners, customers and other stakeholders. Be sure your work is complimentary and supportive of the other messaging going on around you.
Boards and management can look at strategic decision-making as prime opportunities to deepen their relationships with owners. By creating avenues for multi-channel, multi-directional owner communication, leadership builds the bridge between participants and co-op goals.
The Board’s Ends Challenge by Carver
Getting on the Train: Social Media and Co-op Boards by Holly Fearing
The Growth Roadway by Art Sherwood