Embodiment equals expression. What we embody tends to be created. For example, if we want peace in the world, we can “fight” to get it, which isn’t necessarily a peaceful activity, or we can demonstrate what peace looks like by showing respect for others in interactions large and small. Likewise, the realization of a vision occurs when it is carried out consistently on a day-to-day basis—not just when it’s easy, convenient or trendy. Many of our food cooperatives are motivated by the vision of a just economic system that is based on fairness to all stakeholders. One of the tools we use for embodying it in our organizations is through the accountability and empowerment stream.
During this past year we have examined in depth how a culture of empowerment and accountability improves communication, provides a decision-making structure that helps people do their best work, and moves the organization toward alignment and meeting its goals. We have explored how empowerment flows from the members to the board, then on the general manager, department managers and staff. And at each step we’ve noted how accountability flows along the same path in the opposite direction.
As we get better at the empowerment/accountability process, and as co-ops realize parts of the vision of a just economic system, it gets stronger over time. Its increasing power is an important legacy to the next generation. When we look at the empowerment and accountability stream graphic, we can see that the final group of stakeholders is the customers and the community. As we have seen time and again through grassroots groups nationwide who are in the process of starting a food co-op, people understand that a co-op can contribute greatly to a community’s long term economic and social vitality. Many of the established food co-ops have celebrated milestone birthdays of 30–40 years—a whole generation of people who have experienced the benefit of cooperation in their communities. That’s when we can really see how the cycle moves full circle.
But can a community as a whole really hold a business accountable? Can a community be empowered by what the business is doing? The answer is an emphatic yes if we are talking about cooperatives. We are businesses with demonstrable benefits because of our business structure: We are owned by the people who use the co-op, the business model is founded on transparency and fairness, and owners have a direct impact on its activities through their voting and patronage. In a lot of ways, seeing how they hold the co-op accountable is easy—they tell us what they think or quit shopping. But how do we know if they are “empowered” by the co-op?
Nina Johnson, board leadership development consultant, said that the differences between shopping a business you own and one you don’t is palpable. Number one is that the participation engendered by ownership naturally allows people to take a stakeholder role. The co-op is not just another store. “It’s unlike other experiences,” Johnson said. “People shopping at the store they own benefit when the store does well. It’s a unique situation in our culture and capitalist system.” And there’s no one way to participate, as owners find themselves on a continuum of patronizing the co-op, sharing their views, voting and going to meetings. The co-op will be available to and welcoming of people at whatever level participation they are comfortable with, while always encouraging involvement in both small and sizeable ways.
Johnson also thinks that the opportunity for customers to play a part in the co-op’s success is exactly what keeps local economies vibrant. “The effect of their participation is really apparent,” she said, as she cited ways co-ops contribute to food drives, partner with community organizations, sponsor local events as well as community involvement through its in-store activities dedicated to education, high-quality goods and excellent customer service. Johnson recently attended her food co-op’s annual meeting and said that it was standing room only. “All of these people were interested in being a part of the community. That is hugely empowering.”
“Insofar as there are ways for people to be empowered and participate, there are also ways the co-op is accountable to them,” Johnson said. As democratic organizations, cooperatives are tasked with demonstrating transparency, and do this throughout the accountability and empowerment stream in the co-op with board policies, management reports to the board, and information passed on to the owners in the store experience, the newsletter, annual reports and meetings.
But from Johnson’s perspective, it doesn’t just stop there. Being accountable to the owners includes having a strong understanding of what the owners and customers value and sharing the cooperative difference with everyone. “At all levels of the co-op, its job is to tell the story and show how these values are working,” she said.
Board leadership development consultant Mark Goehring thinks the Co-op Principles and Values really drive the idea that “telling the co-op story” is about being accountable. It’s not just a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative. “We have principles and values and a whole movement to base our story on,” he said. He noted that in the last decade, food co-ops have really focused on improving operations, and are getting recognition in their local communities for their retail excellence. Additionally, improved board process and policies, and management reporting, have made strides in revealing to owners that the work the board and staff does is accomplishing good things. “Demonstrating value to owners should show up in our annual reports, but also in what we say to the community about our co-op.”
It’s important to be equally as good at telling the owners and community at large why the co-op business model matters. The benefits of doing this are not just altruistic, as many communities have learned how a successful co-op can be an important part of community economic development. The 2012 International Year of Cooperatives provides an excellent opportunity to build on that storytelling momentum.
“Running a great grocery is a change agent. But beyond that, holding ourselves accountable by standing on what it means to be a co-op shows that we take the co-op values seriously in how we should be in the world. We can always hold ourselves accountable to the message that ‘co-ops are good for people,’” Goehring said.