A daily paper in a mid-size city recently reported that “you didn’t have to go to the co-op anymore” because big box chain stores were carrying environmentally friendly cleaning products. That’s the sort of media that would stab the heart of nearly any dedicated cooperator, but it’s not an uncommon mindset, especially as competition for natural products intensifies. Now more than ever, food cooperatives are pressed to effectively express the passion and purpose of their cooperatives to their communities.
In the past two issues of Solutions, we’ve looked at how food co-ops have set out to define the cooperative advantage, and then we learned how purpose-driven boards are leading the way to articulating values through their ends statements. Now, we turn toward an examination of how the board’s ends statements make their way through the co-op’s organizational structure to be understood by the consumer.
From Brett Fairbairn’s article, “Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives: Linkage, Transparency and Cognition,” we can see how the primary purpose and values of the cooperative are most effectively communicated through the organization. Within those three concepts, Fairbairn argues that economic linkage is the co-op owner’s primary relationship to the co-op. In addition, the co-op’s activities and relationships are transparent to members and consumers.
Cognition is the deepening of those participatory relationships that create a positive outcome. Thus, according to Fairbairn, customer experience with the co-op earns the co-op trust as a values-based organization. Sure, it might all sound good on paper, but from a practical perspective how do a co-op’s values make their way into the hearts and minds of co-op members and shoppers?
As one consultant noted, there’s “some frustration” around what consumers know and understand about the co-op values. What some food cooperators have learned is that by making these concepts the focus of their coop’s everyday decisions and interactions, the co-op can truly build a shared vision with its members and community.
“Big values are translated into small decisions at the co-op every day,” said CDS board trainer Michael Healy. That’s why it’s important all stakeholders clearly understand the relationship between values, co-op operations, and consumer economic engagement. Let’s say the board states that one of the co-op’s priorities is to help build a sustainable agricultural food system. “Day-today staff make thousands of decisions that go into our ability to build a sustainable system,” Healy said. “It should be clear that what they are doing is based on a set of values, and that it is apparent to customers.” For example, when the co-op makes “local” foods a priority, buyers may make the decision to support local producers instead of imported organics.
Likewise, it should also be clear to the co-op member why they are serving the best interests of their co-op with their patronage. This connection is reinforced in general manager reports to the board and members, enabling members to see and understand what the co-op is doing.
Food co-ops have not always done a consistent job of explaining their purpose to the community beyond the selling of natural foods. The articulation of values may happen accidentally or haphazardly. Healy said, “A lot of wonderful things have happened, in any case, but it can be more powerful to take that energy and focus it. That’s when a lot of exciting things start to happen.”
At Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis, Minn., general manager Paula Gilbertson found that when she and her staff applied the co-op’s ends policies more fully to decisions, their programs got more focused, but also much more meaningful to participants, thereby embodying the co-op’s vision for community.
As part of the co-op’s mission to encourage environmental responsibility, the co-op began the organizing process for the Community Solar Project a couple years ago, a development to install solar power at the co-op. Gilbertson said conscious attention to the ends policies and co-op values (concern for community) helped guide their whole process for the project.
Rather than the tried and true approach to fundraising — sending letters to a targeted audience—the co-op looked at ways to make the project educational, inclusive and fun, even for the time-pressed consumer. “We didn’t go back to the same old group. We said ‘let’s talk to everybody.’ We wanted this project to get us to connect the co-op with new people too,” she said. They invited people from many different groups to join them in coordinating idea fairs, concerts and other fundraising activities.
The outcome exceeded their expectations. Not only did they raise the money for the solar project, they brought together a whole new group of people and expanded the co-op’s influence in the community. Gilbertson found that their approach actually inspired people and increased their sense of pride and ownership in the co-op. “People were participating in something, even if it was shopping and watching the process,” she said. “The co-op gave them a vehicle to act. I think it’s made the community stronger and cemented the connection between the environment and community ownership.”
At Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, Wis., general manager Pam Mehnert said that when they considered opening another location, the board held a stakeholders meeting with suppliers, employees, owners and people from the local business community. The meeting was a potent reminder how much the co-op’s values matter to people. “It helped us understand that it’s important to walk the talk, not necessarily build a new store. It’s the values behind it that’s important to them about growing the business.”
Alex Gyori, general manager of Brattleboro Food Co-op in Brattleboro, Vt. concurred. “People have a need for community, a place they can trust. Their need is for the coop to satisfy those values.”
Quantifying that sense of ownership or engagement with the co-op is part of the feedback loop that demonstrates to boards that the co-op’s mission is being carried through the co-op’s activities. It can be challenging sometimes, often requiring the general manager to be “bilingual.” The manager takes those broad value statements and applies them to the coop’s operational programming. The manager will need to identify metrics and gather data to establish benchmarks and measure progress, and then report back to the board on those business decisions in the language of values. In turn, this information is translated to the co-op’s members clearly showing the co-op’s purpose and what it is doing for the community.
In this way the cooperative advantage is developed as the co-op’s most distinctive competitive asset. By all constituents applying the ethic of economic participation as it is defined through co-op values, co-ops build membership investment and loyalty that can resonate throughout a community.