River Valley Market, Northampton, Mass.
River Valley Market in Northampton, Mass. is celebrating its sixth anniversary, and has long been a model of food co-op startup success. This doesn’t mean they didn’t experience setbacks on the road to opening their co-op, but they always persevered, driven by a will to finish what they’d started, and their belief in cooperative business values. They’ve continued to foster a strong relationship with the co-op’s owners and the community, and when it was time to do another capital campaign, the co-op’s leadership was overwhelmed with an outpouring of cash and goodwill.
Two years before the co-op opened in 2007, the founding group had led a member loan campaign that achieved $1 million, which was an all-time high for a startup food co-op at the time. This year, the co-op needed to refinance some commercial bank loans. The board decided to do another member loan campaign to do this. They needed at least $1.3 million to reach this goal, but board president Dorian Gregory said they decided to be “audacious” and ask for $2 million total to also help finance a deli remodel as well. River Valley Market met that goal and then some, by raising a total of $2.4 million.
“I’m so moved and impressed and surprised by what this community can do,” Gregory said. “Plus, we raised this capital for the unexciting reason of refinancing.” She credits the work of the board, management and staff for coming together to explain the benefits of owner capital to the community. “We told them that by refinancing with member-owner loans the co-op would be more stable, have a stronger balance sheet, and be in a better equity position.”
Gregory believes that their successful member loan campaign was also the result of an “ongoing consciousness” at the co-op over the years about keeping all stakeholders involved in the conversation about where the co-op is going. “Our board talks a lot about the best ways to communicate with our member-owners, shoppers, staff, general manager and the community. It’s a huge priority for us,” Gregory said. “Our communication and conversations help people move in the direction of the common good.” So when the co-op asked members to support the co-op’s goals with their money, the groundwork for that had already been developed. “It’s a real contrast to the nonprofit world where it’s a ‘fundraising appeal.’ In this situation people are asked to see themselves as owners,” she added. The co-op currently has 6,300 members and growing.
Gregory also credits Gayle Sullivan, marketing assistant at River Valley Market, with creating an elaborate fundraising thermometer in the shape of a carrot that generated excitement in the store. When the co-op met its goal, flashing neon lights on top of the carrot would turn on when the funding went Over the Top. They also brought this exciting carrot to a loan campaign dinner and people took pictures with it. “We did really silly things with the carrot,” she said. And at the end of the day “we had people coming together to build a more just food economy.” Ok, does this all make strategic leadership and capital campaigns sound like a blast? Absolutely. They had fun and they worked hard. Gregory said, “The only way to build success here is to do it together.”
4PCG Focus—Strategic Leadership:successfully articulating the cooperative’s direction/purpose and setting up the organization for movement in this direction. Each issue of Connections will focus on one pillar of the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance. For more information about 4PCG, read the article in the January/February 2014 issue of Cooperative Grocer.