100% co-op window sign

Over the years we’ve seen retail grocery competition intensify and food co-ops have upped their game with fresh storefronts and great customer service. Likewise, retail grocery chains have leaped on the buy-local bandwagon by hyping a few local products and promoting themselves as “your neighborhood grocer.” Being perceived as community-focused, even when the business is traded on Wall Street, is the latest salvo in the battle for customers, and a mercenary response to the success of the buy-local movement.

Food co-ops have long been known as the real deal. Yet how well have they promoted the one thing the competition cannot touch? That’s ownership. It’s the real difference that distinguishes cooperatives from other business and what creates value and benefit in communities. It’s why co-ops operate with their customer’s best interests as their focus. It’s how cohesion in neighborhoods is built and sustained. And it’s how co-ops maintain relevance when competitors sell the same products and claim similar values.

Getting the message out about this core difference is not all about having better advertising, although certainly good promotions are key. What is most important about ownership is the powerful dynamic of people coming together to meet their needs with the values of fairness and democracy guiding the business practices. Tapping into the competitive strengths of ownership and allowing that to inform operations at all levels is critical. If you want a dynamic and thriving co-op, one that develops ownership as a competitive advantage, the co-op needs to manifest that in its organizational culture.

Adam Schwartz, a cross-sector cooperative consultant, has a unique perspective on co-op culture and successful promotion of ownership. He travels the country and regularly works with co-ops in all sectors, from co-ops celebrating 75 year milestones to startups. Across the board, the co-ops that do well are the ones that intentionally create a positive culture for employees and members based on the Co-op Principles. “Over time an organization’s commitment to its founding principles can fray unless you are very careful,” Schwartz said. He sees a tremendous opportunity for food co-ops to expand on what’s working, and to gain greater recognition for the concept of ownership in their communities by actively cultivating their co-op culture.

So what does a good co-op culture look like? When an ownership culture is front-and-center at a food co-op, you can tell by walking in the door. Employees have pride in their work; things look good. Customers are engaged in the shopping experience, not just buying, but socializing and asking questions. That’s because everyone, from shoppers to employees alike, have been encouraged to be stakeholders in the whole operation, and they want to propagate that. A co-op community is being built on authenticity and the common good. The energy being radiated outward is positive. It makes people want to be a part of it, to join and be involved.

Schwartz has identified a series of steps that he think organizations can put in place to strengthen and energize their co-op culture.

  • Be sure everyone understands ownership and cooperation, especially employees as they are the first people customers contact.
  • Continue cooperative education, training, and learning opportunities in your co-op, including about your co-op.
  • Demonstrate your belief in the co-op way of doing business in your decisions and communications.
  • Benchmark and measure progress and continue to make improvements.
  • Actively implement a positive co-op culture through a long-term strategy.

“It is wonderful to share the passion about what inspires us to do more. It gives us a way to have more meaningful impact in communities,” Schwartz said.

It might also sound counter-intuitive, Schwartz said, but one project that is certain to energize co-op culture, whether it is new or well-established, is when a co-op launches a capital campaign. That puts the focus on co-op ownership and responsibility, encouraging owners to support what they value about their co-op. It gives people an opportunity to think about what matters and to give input about the future.

Ben Sandel, a leadership development and startup co-op consultant has learned through his work helping co-ops raise money from members that “the capital side” is a big part of an invigorated co-op culture. He noted Bloomingfoods Market & Deli in Bloomington, In. is a good example of an established co-op that has engaged their members through investment in the co-op (now going on their fourth location). By making their growth a priority and including their owners in supporting that, it gives people a way to think about their co-op as more than just a place to shop for food. “They do a good job every day to engage their members,” Sandel said.

Some people might think of a capital campaign as a necessary evil, as money can represent heavily loaded issues, but the difference for co-ops is what they do with the money. “We make money that is truly just. Co-ops are a strong alternative to the corporate business model. We do more and better with the money we have,” Sandel said. “Raising capital is another awesome way to be engaged in the community and the store. Everyone thinks about how to grow and be competitive and one way is to keep going and giving members a way to be involved,” he said.

As part of a co-op’s culture regarding capital, it’s also important to consider whether the equity investment required of members is sustainable. “Startups are often hesitant to ask for higher equity, but it’s easy to talk about when you present it as something that’s good for the community. A $200 investment is a small price to pay relative to what you get. It’s ok to ask for money when you need it, and it keeps the process moving.” Sandel also pointed out that part of the reason capital campaigns are so critical to co-op culture is because the support is “going both ways.” This is very important to a culture based on history, connection and purpose.

And last but not least, whatever you do, “let’s start by being nice, friendly, and fun,” Sandel said. “Co-ops are a blast!” It’s great to have a community connection and have fun together, and community ownership plays an important role in being able to do that. “We’re connected in a real sense,” he said.

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