Case Study: Board Accountability at Harvest Cooperative Markets

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Harvest Cooperative Markets
Boston, Mass.
Two locations:Cambridge and Jamaica Plain
Founded: 1976
Number of members: 6,000
Equity investment: $200 per household
Number of staff: 100
Retail square feet: Cambridge 8,000, Jamaica Plain 5,000

Harvest Cooperative Markets has been going through the process of rebuilding board accountability by taking up the board policy work begun almost a decade ago and seeing it through. After a period of good sales but negative financial results that began in year 2000 and continued through a succession of poor management over the years, the co-op found it necessary to regroup and look at their systems (or lack) for accountability. In addition to hiring a good manager, the board felt it was equally important to hold themselves accountable for their own neglected process.

“People like to feel they are productive and contributing,” said Jessie Myszka, president of the board. “We have board policies dating back to the early 90s, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t ever come back to them or they’re not mutually understood. It causes a lot of frustration on the board and for the manager.” They were also motivated by a desire to keep their competent general manager in place. “We didn’t want to take a good GM and frustrate him with poor governance,” Myszka said. So the board set out to clarify their expectations at all levels.

They are looking at all points of accountability and linkage not just between the general manager and the board, but the board and its owners, the general manager and staff, and among staff and member owners. Through the CBLD program, the Harvest board has explored accountability as having clear expectations, assigning responsibility and systematically checking to see that expectations are met. This work is the Harvest board’s number-one priority. Even though they are just beginning, Myszka believes they are achieving results because they are doing the work with intention and better board administration.

Myszka said they are looking at how Harvest can take more of a multi-stakeholder approach within their system. “The co-op as heart of the community—we’ve not been focusing on that.” She mentioned how one of their locations is experiencing competition from chains and how the board’s vision can impact that dynamic. “It’s not in the chains’ best interest to focus on the local community…they may not abuse it, but they don’t see it the way we do, that the people around us are our neighbors and that we should have an active local economy.”

Myszka believes a lot of the co-op’s potential is lost when the accountability cycle doesn’t go full circle to the members.

“In the same way that we hold ourselves accountable, we want the owners to hold the board accountable. Yet it’s unfair for the co-op to ask them to act like owners if they don’t have information.” The Harvest board has set out to address that issue because there was virtually no communication in either direction. So they’re asking members what they need to know to be good owners. They realize that 6,000 people can’t hold the board accountable in the same way the board does the general manager, so they’ve decided to start with stating their intentions and reporting on their progress to the members.

At their annual meeting they held a forum with members. “We wanted to avoid talking heads at the annual meeting. The members were very enthusiastic. We

[the board] left energized. We realized the members care, and we felt more motivated, knowing the members feel invested in the co-op.”

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By |May 30th, 2006|Categories: Case Studies, Solutions|Tags: , , |

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