Emerging Systems in Our Sector


In Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, she writes that when you bake a cake you have ingredients—flour, sugar, eggs, milk—but putting them in a bowl and mixing them up doesn’t mean you have a cake. You have goop. You have to add some kind of energy (heat) to finish it. The resulting product is something utterly transformed from the raw ingredients.

As cooperators work to create new systems for collaboration in the food co-op sector, the makings for something really good are now being assembled. In April 2004, members of the regional Co-op Grocers Association’s voted to reorganize as one entity into the National Co-op Grocers Association (NCGA). It’s an important step in the evolution of food cooperators’ commitment to working together—but the work has really just begun. The “cake” is not finished yet.

“We need to think about our sector’s development in stages,” said Marilyn Scholl, CDS consultant who worked with the NCGA on the reorganization plan. She cited a study by the University of Wisconsin Extension about multi-community collaboration, and how the sharing of resources occurs across a spectrum of partnerships that range from simple elemental networks to formal collaborative structures that include policies and procedures, as well as a significant commitment of resources.

“Each region is coming together at different stages of development,” said Holly Jarvis, NCGA’s board president. “Some are maturing and others are getting started taking collaboration to the next level. Now there is momentum and opportunity that didn’t exist before. The process of getting to the vote led us to feeling inspired and excited about the possibility before us.”

Robynn Shrader, NCGA executive director, believes one of the strengths food co-ops have is the foundation for collaboration created by the regional associations. “Food co-ops have been practicing collaboration in very successful ways, and are familiar with what can be achieved by taking it to the next level.”

At this stage in the NCGA’s development, resources are focused on helping co-ops operate better to meet the goal of “thriving retail food co-ops.” But it’s not an all-or-nothing situation, according to Jarvis. “If NCGA’s vision was only operations, that’s not going to carry us very far,” she said. As the food co-op system develops it is critical to involve the many stakeholders: managers, boards, members. Scholl concurred, “There needs to be a balanced focus on the most critical relationships.”

As food cooperators move forward, there are things that leaders have suggested are areas of focus that would help develop those relationships that build the system. First, there needs to be “an influx of intentionality,” according to Scholl. What do food co-ops want to intentionally affect, and then plan for it, give it a time frame, allocate the resources for it, and establish the collaborative networks that can realize those goals.

“It’s important to keep our purpose clear,” Scholl said. “We are independent co-ops collaborating for the greater good, not trying to be the same or identical. Each co-op creates its own experience. We need to have a system that helps us do that more efficiently.”

Ron Shaffer, community development economist with the University of Wisconsin Extension noted in his work that “collaboration involves strong linkages among members.” Part of doing that is the necessity of “delegating considerable autonomy to the collaboration.” He argues that real alliances involve “more intense” linkages than may have been the tradition for groups, and that collaboration implies a “shared destiny.”

Some cooperators have suggested that ways to achieve full collaboration in food co-ops will be the ability to:

  • support the system by being generous with resources, especially in finding ways to meaningfully help other co-ops
  • believe that the success of all is critical to the success of the individual co-op
  • involve others in contributing to the vision

Supporting collaboration surely means putting up dollars, but beyond that, the need for flexibility is a big part of building support for the emerging systems. Being able to listen to other points of view, dropping turf battles in favor of compromising in a collaborative way by taking a look at what’s good for the sector, all contribute to that aspect of cooperation.

“We have the potential for far reaching impact on food, community and even categories of social problems with an effective collaboration in communities if we are able to see beyond our own limited part of it,” said Scholl.

Jarvis noted that food co-ops have been seriously challenged by competition since 1993—competition that has only intensified. She feels the need for collaboration acutely in her role as general manager of Food Front Co-op in Portland, Or. Food co-op market share all around the country has decreased—and a benefit of working together is the ability to strategically develop co-ops in communities that need and want them, as well as effectively compete.

A more aggressive approach to food co-op growth is the focus of an internal study by CDS as they look at a potential model for co-op development that is effective, efficient and profitable, so the onus of co-op development does not fall on isolated, or individual communities alone.

Although the NCGA reorganization is one step in a long-term process, there is currently renewed enthusiasm for what food co-ops can accomplish together. “We continue to have a sense of hope that co-ops can be viable and successful, and that with the cooperative values including self-help, democracy, equality and honesty the world can be a better place. We have to believe in our success and that it matters. This creates and sustains the sparks,” said Scholl. So let the bake-off begin!

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By |July 1st, 2004|Categories: Solutions|

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