Sevananda Natural Foods Market, Atlanta, Ga.

The story of Sevananda Natural Foods Market, located in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta, is a testament to the resilience of cooperation, and the ability of people to continue to work together through divisive and multiple challenges. All co-ops have difficulties in some areas and occasionally these lead to a crisis and financial hardships. It’s how the co-op meets these adversities that helps clear hurdles rather than stumbling.

Like a lot of co-ops that have run into trouble, the co-op’s struggles began long before anyone outside the co-op recognized there was a problem. With divisive interpersonal dynamics, the board had trouble making decisions and agreeing on priorities. Key actions were delayed including revising long outdated bylaws and conducting an external financial audit. A small group of people within the membership objected to discussing possible changes to the co-op’s product policies. A series of unfortunate situations caused the board, on the advice of their attorney, to suspend elections in 2010 and 2012. Along with significant operational problems, these issues resulted in serious challenges to Sevananda’s financial sustainability as well as damage to its reputation in the community. Meanwhile, natural food grocery competition in Atlanta intensified and sales at the co-op declined.

Under the leadership of board president Calvin Vismale, Sevananda is finally coming through this difficult transition toward a place of strength and confidence. With the board down to 5 people, teaming was essential. Each board member used their unique skillset to contribute to the work of the board. Board members developed strategies for supporting one another during the most divisive and challenging times. To gain approval of the new “fresh start” bylaws and attract interest in board service, the board prepared comprehensive member information packets and held three informational meetings to get the word out about the co-op’s plight. Now at the start of 2014, they’ve repopulated their board and passed new bylaws, with 87 percent of the voting membership’s approval. “With the new stability of our governance, our current and future boards will be able to focus on member involvement and engagement in new ways,” Vismale said.

Sevananda offers a cautionary tale about what happens when the board is not working together effectively and when people throughout the co-op organization are not in alignment. Yet this is also a story of hope and healing, and how people working together, including people within the whole food co-op sector, have come together to help restore Sevananda’s sustainability and chart a positive future. It’s about people who don’t give up, even when things are terrible.

“We are passing through the survival stage to the sustainability stage,” said Vismale. He said getting there included assistance from the CDS Consulting Co-op working with their board, and the National Co-op Grocers Association Development Co-op (NCGADC) that provided interim management and a bridge loan for necessary cash. Cooperatives in the Eastern Corridor of the NCGAalso provided financial assistance. ”The whole community has supported our success,” Vismale said.

“We’re at a place and time to move forward together. ” Vismale explained, “All organizations go through evolutions and challenges. Those that survive have to grow and better serve their member-owners. We have to remember to focus on things we share in common. It’s why our co-op exists.” Scarred and wiser, Sevananda is sharing its difficulties to help others avoid similar pitfalls. “We are telling our story to members and the community about why it’s important we survive,” Vismale said.

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