Cooperative boards of directors are small groups of people who influence the future of the world. They are committed citizens who think and learn about and work together for something that together they find relevant and compelling. Boards are the direct descendants of the original co-op founders, the Rochdale Pioneers. Like their “ancestors,” the goal of cooperative boards is to make their utopian way of thinking about the world a reality.
Think about how grassroots organizations start. A group of leaders who thinks something should be better than the way that it is takes action and asks others to join them. All co-ops share this story; it is part of their heritage. Linkage is that very act of joining these leaders and sharing their vision.
Many boards quite reasonably have a lot of anxiety about linking and engaging with owners. They want to do it better, but it is a big job without an obvious recipe for success.
Relax! You are linked. Most boards are doing better at owner engagement than they give themselves credit for. The systems and processes for deep engagement with owners are already in place at the co-op, and chances are you are already using them. The co-op has been intentionally designed to allow people opportunities to participate in making the world a better place. It’s a matter of optimizing those systems. We are linked—we just have to pay attention and take advantage of what we have in place!
So, what systems do co-ops have that link boards to owners?
Democracy: Co-op owners choose their leaders. Co-op boards are linked to owners from the moment they are elected because they’ve been chosen by members to govern and lead the co-op as through a democratic process. To strengthen this connection, boards can make sure they’re presenting a range of qualified candidates from which to choose and aim for contested elections, making sure that people with a range of solid leadership qualifications are always on the slate, so that the board will be strong and representative of the co-op’s owners regardless of who is elected.
Information About What Owners Do: Co-op owners speak with their actions as much as or more than with their words. Tracking ownership trends like increasing equity, new-owner sign-ups, member loan participation, and sales trends or buying patterns can tell a board a lot about how connected the owners are to the co-op. What’s the percentage of sales to owners at your co-op? It’s important to look at multiple indicators, not a single one in isolation or trends over time, and then use your judgment as to the significance.
Existing Communication Tools: Take a good look at the communication channels you’re already using: newsletter articles, websites, blogs, annual reports, and the letters that go with patronage dividends. Are they telling a compelling and relevant story? Whenever the board puts out a communication, it needs to be strategic. Reiterate the co-op’s common values, describe the benefits the co-op provides, connect it to the past and the future, and then ask “Are you with us?” And always put out the invitation to respond. Linking means listening as well as talking.
Interactive Events: Keep in mind that many owners may not want to engage at this level and that’s ok. Don’t create events just to drum up participation. Use events that solicit owner input when the board actually needs to figure something out, that is, when it really is looking for owner input that can affect the outcome of a situation or develop a topic the board is learning about. Special meetings to learn about specific dynamics or trends that might affect current or future co-op owners can be a great engagement link. Don’t forget co-op social events to simply share community! These can be put on with the help of management and staff and might encourage owners who are engaged socially to participate more and might even intrigue those who aren’t to know that there’s a lot more at the co-op.
Paying attention to the systems already in place will take our leaders further into the space of board-owner linkage, and they can also let them know if the owners are still with them. By bringing consciousness to a board’s actions as it utilizes these systems, they can enhance them. And by enhancing them, they can continue to change the world.
- How well does each of the four systems help the board to communicate to owners at your co-op?
- What processes and activities within the four systems discussed above does your co-op already have in place?
- Think of a co-op story the board would like to share with the ownership. In what ways/how would you share it?
Three Strategic Concepts, Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives, Brett Fairbairn https://www.coopfoodstore.com/sites/default/files/3_strategic_concepts.pdf
Telling the Board’s Story through the Co-op Marketing Department, Rebecca Torpie