Many cooperatives have built their reputations on the strong connection that they have with people—their staff, owners and customers. This special relationship is one of most attractive features of cooperation, but just because that may be true doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved or isn’t ever at risk. Especially in the natural foods grocery market, where leading-edge approaches to price image, service experience, and inventive merchandizing are important to drawing and maintaining customers. Clearly cooperatives have to be as good as, or better, than the competition.
CDS CC consultant Mark Goehring thinks that strengthening one of cooperation’s competitive advantages—its social and economic relationship to its customers—is a big part of cooperatives thriving into the future. “We have thousands of people in relationship to their co-op, and we need new ways of valuing that relationship,” he said. In addition, Participation is one of the five key themes of the Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade (the others are Sustainability, Identity, Legal Frameworks and Capital).
That’s why he and a team of other CDS Consulting Co-op members, in partnership with a number of food co-ops, were inspired to create a new program to systematically support food co-op efforts to enhance the engagement people have with their cooperatives at all levels of the organization. The Power of Participation (POP) program is now being launched with a pilot group of ten food co-ops that will assess and improve their individual co-op systems related to strengthening their connections to owners and customers. The program approach and systematic support of participation will help co-ops make important incremental improvements and implement new best ways as they come available.
“Reframing participation is part of the goal for the program. The food co-ops involved want to look at new ways to provide information and experiences for people,” Goehring said. He also added that everyone has a role to play in creating that within the co-op, from the board, staff, management, members and non-member customers. That’s why POP will also draw from the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance model that includes people from all levels of the co-op organization.
Many co-ops are already using Open Book management, and the same principles apply to POP in terms of including people in the organization’s goals by giving them information, offering them the opportunity to participate, and appreciating, or rewarding it when they do. Goehring also cited Brett Fairbairn and his theory that co-op success is predicated on merging customer self-interest with the common good. People shopping at food co-ops want their purchases to make a difference, but they also want to meet their own needs, first and foremost.
“POP is a potentially transformational opportunity that could embrace the full scale of the two million people who are food co-op members. It’s an opportunity for engagement with all of these people,” he said. “It will take time to approach system-wide implementation, but the upside is tremendous to empower two million people and more who could embrace community-owned enterprise.”
Member services consultant Patricia Cumbie is one the CDS CC team members participating in the implementation of POP. “The question everyone is searching for answers to is how to increase the amount of customers choosing to shop at and participate in their co-ops,” she said. “Even though the co-op model has proved to be better business partners for communities, individuals and local economies, co-ops are still misunderstood, even by the very people who own them.”
One of the things that she’s observed is that the food co-op sector has been good at focusing on developing the necessary systems for excellent grocery retailing. However, member services and outreach programs are not always developed with the same consistency or systematic approach, or they may lack strong internal support. Education about the co-op business model might get short-shrift in the day-to-day demands of retail.
Cumbie thinks part of the reason for this is that the cooperative member relationship is unique in the business world, and there are not the same type of ready-made systems that specifically address food co-op membership relations in the same way that say electronic ordering systems have been created for grocery efficiency. That makes good member services sometimes more challenging to implement.
“That’s where I think POP has so much value. It will give people more support for developing effective systems and monitoring activities that can provide co-ops a platform for strengthening what a lot of them already do, but to do it more consistently,” she said. “We need to be more intentional about our efforts if we want to see the results in better sales and owner engagement,” she added. “POP’s a big opportunity for co-ops to have assistance with enhancing their relationships.”
Patronage is Participation
The success of any cooperative is predicated on its use by its members. Supporting the sales function of the co-op is one of their most important roles, yet a lot of owners don’t necessarily understand it, or make that connection. Creating communication feedback loops for co-op members and shoppers, to demonstrate to them in concrete ways that their patronage matters—for the producers who grow the food, to the workers at the co-op, their local community, as well as the co-op as a whole—is a big part of enhancing that relationship with all stakeholders.
“Our goal is to help co-ops clearly define who they are in the marketplace by better communicating their values to more people,” Cumbie said.
If your co-op is interested in joining the pilot program, contact Mark Goehring at 802-380-3824 email firstname.lastname@example.org.