No chain grocery store could ever be as woven into the fabric of its community as a co-op. Boards can help their co-ops leverage this advantage by looking at their role as board members through the lens of successful relationship-building as much as through successful oversight of operations.
The POP (Power of Participation) program strengthens the quality of relationships across participant groups—owner, shopper, staff, community, GM and board—by working with the co-op to improve specific systems, processes, or activities that connect co-op participants to co-op goals. Three of the POP program participants, Weaver Street Market, Central Co-op and River Valley Co-op are especially great examples of the power of participation being successfully implemented at the board level.
By solving for the mechanics that hinder greater participation at their co-op, the co-op becomes the place that provides myriad ways for people to play a role in achieving its success—and a great place to buy good food.
So, what can boards learn from the POP?
Make participation a goal.
Based on feedback from owners who wanted the co-op to provide more ways for them to engage, the Weaver Street Market board recently updated their ends statement to include a clause about participation: A vibrant, sustainable food marketplace defined by shared economics, shared community and shared knowledge, driven by widespread and diverse participation, for owners and potential owners.
The co-op has set quantitative goals for improved participation at staff and member levels, including the number and scale of participation opportunities, and the percent of employees who participate in accomplishing co-op goals as a routine part of their job.
Shout your goals and make your vision sparkle!
Effective messaging is key to making sure participation as a priority is heard. Make it easy for owners to find out exactly what the co-op is aiming to accomplish and why.
River Valley owners know exactly what their co-op stands for: a deep connection with and respect for the environment, support of local farms and businesses, and a commitment to serving and strengthening their community. River Valley Co-op’s vision shines through a combination of exceptional brand power and intentioned, purposeful communication by the Board and GM. This manifests powerfully into a deeply engaged ownership that appreciates and values the fundamentals of what it means to be a co-op, and who demonstrates this through patronage, investment and input.
Communicate intentionally with clarity and purpose.
While a well laid-out annual report is a great way to engage owners and inform members of co-op achievements once a year, boards need to make a commitment to intentioned communication with clarity and purpose to the membership the other 364 days as well. This goes beyond one-way board articles in the newsletter; think multi-channel, multi-direction dialogues that allow owners to interact with board members, to provide input and feedback, and be kept up-to-date on co-op plans, particularly those that change the landscape of the co-op that they currently know, such as expansion, merger or a brand refresh. It is both the board and the GM’s job to make sure the membership is not only informed but has the board’s ear during periods of change.
The River Valley board and GM relationship embodies teamwork, creativity and progress and a healthy practice of policy governance synergizes the board’s and GM’s work together which connects the board to the Co-op in a particularly integrated way. The GM-board team has made communication about co-op goals and opening avenues to owner input a priority during a critical time of expansion, when ownership buy-in is key. It has also stayed involved at a boots-on-the-ground level by hosting input and educational events, writing articles for the local papers, organizing the co-op’s Austin-Miller Co-op Hero Awards, and inviting owners to a Cooperative Cafe event.
Make the strategic decision to be a community leader—and put mechanisms in place to act.
Boards and GMs that work together to make participation a priority at their co-op can work toward cultural shifts that can lead to real competitive advantages. By moving the vision of healthy cross co-op participation into operational systems and structures, appreciation for participation can change to active participation. Communicating clearly and purposefully and using our unique position as both community anchors and change agents give the board-GM relationship myriad opportunities to serve the co-op and provide outlets for new ways to participate. This is our natural differentiator.