Last year, Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, Texas opened its second store and inaugurated a new board president. In the buildup to the second store in South Austin, both the board and management worked diligently to prepare the operations and governance for growth. Their activities were united under the vision of how to grow with purpose.
The message of this growth has been codified as Wheatsville’s BIG Direction, which serves as a powerful communication tool for all stakeholders explaining why the co-op is seeking growth. The BIG stands for “business is good,” and this includes being financially stable, and that what the co-op does with its business practices and profit is good. Wheatsville can do positive things within the community by embracing growth.
Now that the new store is open and the board leadership has successfully transitioned through growth, the question is now how to continue to evolve and perform its responsibilities in a changed organization. Reyna Bishop, the board’s president, set out to determine what’s next. “We asked ourselves as a board ‘what strategic learning do we need to do for the next stage of the BIG Direction?’”
As part of the process, the Wheatsville board currently sets aside 45 minutes to 1 hour of each board meeting to do strategic learning. Some boards might find this level of commitment to strategic learning a luxury, but the Wheatsville board believes this is an important part of their work. They have focused on a number of topics, including diversity, the role of access and food justice, deepening their understanding of the Cooperative Principles, and learning more about non-food co-ops in the area, like credit unions, agriculture and electric co-ops.
One of their Ends policies is to have a robust cooperative economy, and the Wheatsville board has been exploring what this means. “Does a more robust co-op economy mean more money in our own co-op? Or other co-ops? How do we find ways to use the services of other co-ops? We’re learning that there’s a gap in our knowledge,” Bishop said. “How do other co-ops interpret co-op values and make them manifest in their co-ops?”
Bishop said the board “has an itch to scratch” as well regarding areas of Austin that are underserved by the grocery market. “We realized we didn’t know what those communities want and need. Are we a good fit for a food desert?”
Bishop also underscores the need for the board to engage in this level of learning. “There’s work for the board to do regarding thinking about what we’re working on together for the future of the co-op.” She also said that in order to make each topic more manageable, each board member takes the responsibility for one strategic learning session per year. “That way everyone gives their input. It makes the board more thoughtful and more engaged,” she said. “It’s important to be thoughtful and intentional about it.”
All of the strategic learning the board has been pursuing is laying the groundwork for what’s next within the context of the co-op’s BIG Direction regarding more local food, more co-op vendors, more jobs, and a bigger co-op economy.