Using Storytelling Techniques for Owner Linkage

Flatbush Food Co-op
Brooklyn, New York

Year founded: 1976
Number of members: 3,500
Member investment: $200
Number of employees: 70
Retail square footage: 8,000

The Flatbush Food Co-op has been in business as a trusted institution in Brooklyn since the 1970s, yet given the increasing competition, and with expansion a possibility, the co-op’s leadership believed there was more they could do to enhance how they presented the co-op to their owners and the broader community. At the co-op’s recent board retreat this fall, they decided to focus on how they could better tell the co-op’s story—as individuals interacting with people, and as a board sharing information about their work and decisions.

Leading up to the retreat, the co-op had been focused on communicating with owners about a potential expansion and accompanying member loan drive. While the deal for a site that they had in mind did not go through, expansion remains a priority. How to share expansion-related information with owners properly was important to the board and management. Sheila Lieberman, the co-op’s board president, said, “Because of the work we were doing with the community and members, we thought making ‘story’ as the focus of our retreat would be good for our board work.”

Gill Smith, the board’s secretary, agreed it was a great use of the board’s retreat time. “We have been very much focused on strengthening our links with members and were looking for different ways to communicate with them.” The Flatbush Food Co-op is also in an economically and racially diverse community, and being able to speak to the many different communities they serve is a high priority.

Part of the retreat designed by Michael Healy, board leadership development consultant, was to introduce concepts from Jonah Sachs’s book Winning the Story Wars, about how to break through the media din and change lives using the classic patterns of stories and myths. Specifically, he references “The Hero’s Journey,” the archetypal formula for storytelling described by Joseph Campbell.

According the Sachs’s reinterpretation of this template, the audience is the hero, an outsider muddling through a broken world, and the co-op and its brand is the mentor calling the community to higher human values by revealing how they can help build a better world. Lieberman said it was the most fascinating part of the day, as individuals in the retreat focused on the process of creating their own story about the co-op in relationship to the members and the broader community, casting the target audience, rather than the co-op as the hero. “It allowed me to write something that I was able to use for the annual report and informed what I would say at the annual meeting. It was very relevant, and took some of the tension out of doing that task. It was a really potent aspect,” she said.

Charlotte Mirer is the board’s vice president, and she said that the Hero’s Journey created a paradigm shift in how she will communicate with owners. “For example, when talking about donations, and how the co-op gave a certain amount of money to various organizations, rather than just telling people that, a better way is to say, ‘because of you, we are able to donate…’ and make it clear the owners are enabling the co-op to do this. It’s about the members as heroes and the value of the members’ contribution to the co-op in helping us to live the values we all want to live.”

“One of the other things Michael did is help us look at different aspects of our story through different lenses, including trends in today’s market, our history and the co-op’s financial performance,” said Smith. “It opened up many different angles of our story. Instead of telling people what the board or store is doing, we can integrate how great it is that our members are part of it, and convey how they help the co-op get better and grow.”

Everyone concurred that it was a great retreat that offered a new perspective as well as skillset to the board. Mirer concluded, “It was eye opening to realize we’ve had this info, but we weren’t really communicating it as effectively as we could. Now we’re seeing things differently and telling our own story about the co-op in another way.”

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One Comment

  1. Cath City Tease January 17, 2018 at 11:19 am - Reply

    This article is so timely – we are revisiting our messaging tactics and have begun showcasing current owners and their reasons for joining (storytelling). it’s been helpful for one owner to take ownership of this monthly interview process. We are excited for 2018 as we strive to double our ownership.
    Clipper City Co-op Manitowoc WI

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