Cooperatives are known for giving back to their local communities. There are myriad examples of the ways food co-ops have supported positive change in many towns and cities around the country. Likewise, when that same focus on support is given to inter-co-op development, great things happen.

Over the last decade significant resources have been created to help food co-op startup groups find answers and practical how-to for opening a food co-op in their communities. In order to codify the food co-op startup process and help groups understand it, the members of CDS Consulting Co-op (CDS CC) originated a model called the 4 Cornerstones in 3 Stages. It recognizes that each group needs 4 Cornerstones—vision, talent, capital and systems—within 3 Stages of development. Those stages include organizing, feasibility and planning, and implementation.

The sector has learned many important lessons about how to assist startup groups to be more efficient and effective. One of the most important insights was that when startup groups get professional advice early on in their process, they are much more likely to open their co-ops more quickly and with greater success. Expertise promotes best-practices, saving groups time and money.

When it comes to any co-op, one-size does not fit all, but often startup groups’ needs are immediate and wide-ranging. How do you manage community outreach? What’s a good group decision-making process? How much money do we need to raise? When should we incorporate? Some startup groups do well getting their community together, but their technical knowledge is limited. Other groups know business, but their outreach is weak.

Long before co-op doors open, the organizing and feasibility stages demand an enormous commitment from its founding committee members. Not only do they need to learn how to be a decision-making group, but also to organize their co-op during its developmental stages. For these reasons, being able to get answers quickly and for reasonable cost is a priority. That’s why the CDS CC has created the 4 in 3 Support Program for Startups. It gives startup groups the opportunity to have someone on call who can answer myriad questions at a critical time in their ­development.

The 4 in 3 Support Program for Startups is tailored to the specific needs of startup groups. Often the people involved may be playing more than one role in the organization in order to get it up and ­running.

Ben Sandel, a CDS CC board leadership consultant working with startups, was a founding member and board president of the Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, Va. He knows exactly what it’s like to be tasked with steering a group as well as creating a startup timeline, rallying the community, and meeting fundraising goals. “When you begin working on a startup there are hundreds of questions,” Sandel said. “Our aim is to help groups more quickly find out what they need to know and help them avoid mistakes or omissions.”

Sandel believes that successful groups have a good process at the outset for dealing with inevitable challenges. “You need good process to have successful outcomes,” he said. By establishing that up front, he said it sets groups up to do things like organizing the community and developing systems for fundraising. “That’s where the 4 Cornerstones in 3 Stages is so useful. It helps you create the process and plan and understand where things fit during different stages.”

Leslie Watson was a member of the startup group for the Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, and is also working with startups as aCDS CC board leadership consultant. As a front-runner in the Third Wave of food co-op development she remembers that support for Eastside wasn’t as researched and grounded in experience like it is today. She sees the benefits of the 4 in 3 Support Program for Startups extending to the whole sector. “Co-op experience really helps beget more co-ops,” she said. “Food co-ops have figured out development paradigms better than any other co-op sector and it’s having an impact. All of this work has really improved the process.”

leslie-watson-sectorWatson also empathizes with the challenge of startup fundraising in order to fund professional support, but suggests that people think about the assistance in terms of its value to their whole community. “It’s hard to part with your precious money to buy help,” she said. “Sometimes groups think they can get what they need from volunteers or through pro bono work.” Watson said the risks can be greater if you go that route because you may not get the answers you need or things may take longer. “Hiring professional co-op assistance is worth it. The people who are experts in the co-op profession have put in a lot of time on things you are learning about. They have experiences with supporting multiple groups who are facing the same issues and questions as you. With their support you will be able to open quicker, with less cost and more successfully.”

Watson stressed, though, that the one thing startup groups cannot buy is their connection to the community. That is organizing work they will have to do for themselves, although support and guidance is available for that too. “In our country there’s a lot of desire for meaningful connections as an antidote to cynicism and frustration. We have the opportunity to show people that co-ops are the real thing.”

In established food co-ops, a lot of community engagement happens in the aisles of the store. A startup has to create participation and connection through the story they tell about their vision for the future. And in this realm not only do startup groups need advice, they also need encouragement. The 4 in 3 Support Program for Startups also gives groups the positive reinforcement they need that keeps people going and keeping the faith over the long haul. Watson noted, “Co-ops start because people give of themselves” and it’s important to recognize the importance of that.

Sandel said, “Encouragement is an important element in supporting startup groups, to let them know that the outcome is worth the effort.”

Watson knows from personal experience how much it matters because her food co-op helped transform her neighborhood. Ten years ago the Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis opened on a “challenged” street corner that has led to a revitalization of an economically depressed part of the city. She describes it as a “compassionate store” with 4,000 current owners, that donates to over a hundred groups a year, offers high-quality food, classes, and is a great civic member of the neighborhood. “When you are in the middle of organizing, you don’t even realize the far-reaching impact of what you are creating by owning things together and building community. When you do the work of building your co-op, you are creating the opportunity for so much more.”

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