As food co-ops add locations and post sales well into the multi-millions, it is critical that these important community assets are well-governed. Because the stakes are higher than ever, food co-ops need people with strong leadership skills to serve on boards.
Today’s boards are grappling with how to go about recruiting people from a variety of backgrounds and screening them for the necessary skillset to serve. How can the board nominations process be fair, transparent, and accessible? This was the question Outpost Natural Foods’ board set out to answer two years ago when they believed that their nominations and elections process could be improved.
“We want to ensure we have the best people on the board every year to govern a multi-site growing organization,” said David Lee, Outpost’s board president. “We need competent, team players, and we needed to have an intentional process for nominating them.” He said they were spurred to change by years where there were either not enough board candidates or too many, underwhelming or overwhelming voting owners. Given the scope of Outpost’s business activities, Lee believed that the composition of the board of directors should not be left up to chance. They developed a nominations process that puts forth a recommended slate of six candidates for 3 seats to ensure a contested election.
The board uses individual and organizational networks, social media, and co-op communication systems to search for potential candidates. Each interested person fills out an application and meets with the nominations committee to learn about board procedures and policies. Additionally, each candidate is rated on six criteria:
- Application response
- Personal and professional skillset
- Board experience or similar
- Prior community involvement
- Cultural competence
- Teamwork ability
The top six candidates are recommended by the nominations committee to the board for approval of the election slate. “We want to use an objective measure to prove to the rest of the board that these are the people that are the best of the bunch,” Lee said.
As part of creating this nominations process, Lee said they discussed issues of inclusivity versus curation of candidates. They choose a six-candidate slate to both assure qualified candidates and have enough of a variety of people. “I think it’s up for every board to decide. At Outpost it felt to us like we were not fulfilling our responsibility if we knowingly allowed people into the election who wouldn’t bring good skills to the board.”
Lee also thinks that this process helps them ensure a more diverse and inclusive group is available to owners to vote on. Lee said they’d been experiencing a decline in voting, in part because they’d have a long election packet and people tended to vote for the first three on the list and ignore the other candidates. With six candidates, it’s easier for owners to review and decide, and that has resulted in vote counts being closer, leading to fairer elections for candidates, too. “It brings rationality to the elections process,” Lee said.