When new wave food co-ops started around 30 years ago, they made natural food accessible to many communities in America, and in the process created a very dynamic niche in the grocery industry. Like other progressive movements at the time (peace, ecology, feminist, civil rights) we have experienced some success, expanded our influence and drawn some criticism from founders. With that, we need to reexamine who we are now and how we can keep making a difference.
People may not have adequately understood back then the power of co-op ownership to create community wealth, and that sound business practices were critical to fulfilling the mission. Our food co-ops have matured, changed tactics, and have needed to rearticulate who we are now for lots of reasons, not just the growing prevalence of natural food in the marketplace.
It is the role of the board of directors to do the work of answering big and sometime nebulous questions. Is principled commerce relevant to our communities? If it is, what is its purpose today and into the future? In addition, how do board members articulate and define their co-op’s vision to the managers who carry the message out to the public day-to-day? The board’s work in this area can have an enormous impact on asserting the outcomes of co-op, not only for the marketplace, but for the community as a whole.
Board consultant Mark Goehring said that the boards that focus their energy on the coop’s purpose, viewing their work as stewards of the co-op’s mission, bring high value to the co-op and community. “Shepherding the co-op’s vision allows leaders to have a real impact. It says that you’re willing to take responsibility for the future.” Goehring noted that doing this work sometimes takes an important leap of faith.
To some boards, it may feel very abstract to deal with questions of vision and purpose when they feel busy enough with working in the here and now. Taking the time to learn and explore through that process might feel impractical given the time constraints on a body of volunteers, yet Goehring said, “It might be a matter of redefining how a board spends its most precious resource, its time. If the board doesn’t do this work, who will?” Goehring said board members can practice a leadership role by thinking about the future and considering the desired impact they want the co-op to have on the world, rather than working on programs or activities for the coop. “It’s tricky, though, because sometimes we need to talk programs and activities in order to have the bigger conversation about outcomes and improving lives and the community,” he said.
Boards have to provide appropriate structure to their discussions to ensure that they accomplish their goals. Goehring said that having clarity around roles and responsibilities is often the first step. “you don’t need to duplicate the role of the general manager. That’s a different job,” he noted. Boards also need to have their own work plan. They do need to connect “what’s the point?” with what the manager is doing, but how they answer that question comes from their own process and perspective as owner representatives, rather than in reaction to the manager’s work and role.
Once a board has clarified roles and responsibilities and determined a process for working on the big questions, how do they actually begin to have those productive conversations?
Linda Stier is a board trainer and consultant, as well as a director at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, North Carolina. “Whenever the question arises, I’ve always returned to basic governance principles and the co-op principles.” Stier said it’s essential for boards to use those principles to frame their questions around the co-op’s purpose.
What was the co-op’s original intent, and how might that have changed? For example, if the co-op was founded to bring the community wider access to natural food, and it’s possible that it’s widely available now, is providing access to natural food still the goal or is it something else? She also said it is critical to ask what difference the co-op makes in the community. If there were no co-op, what would be missing?
“When boards start to answer these questions what comes up is a bigger world view that goes past selling food, to things like the local economy and broader community,” Stier said. “When boards engage in it—articulating the intangible thing that the co-op provides— people get excited about it. When people see the co-op for what it is and could do, they automatically tap into a bigger network.”
Goehring also guessed that in the early days food co-op governance had been defined by the necessity of intertwined roles, for example the board treasurer might have been the co-op’s bookkeeper. Today, boards can delegate those functions through its general manager, freeing them to do the work of engaged discussion about the future. “Today’s work is different and it can be very satisfying and valuable,” said Goehring.
If the food co-op is an example of what it means to create community, then growth or expansion is expression of those values, not just development for the sake of it. Bill Gessner, who helps co-ops with business development and project management for expansions, said discussions about expansion feasibility also need to include an examination of the reasons why the co-op wants to expand. “Expansion planning would go better if boards focused on how the expansion serves the ends of the co-op. That’s part of assembling a vision and building a plan out of that vision,” Gessner said.
The board’s role is to engage in discussion about the co-op’s purpose and loop that back to the membership and community. Talking about values and food and community is a bit more challenging, but clarity can help make a truly expansive vision into a reality.
So where does the board’s fiduciary responsibility and the general manager’s accountability to the retailing part of the co-op fit into the development of this vision? The store is the economic engine of the cooperative vision, and that’s a core part of what makes a co-op different from a mission-driven nonprofit. Co-ops perpetuate ethical commerce through its economic activity. A co-op user is connecting to the greater good, but even if they are not necessarily aware of it, the co-op has still achieved its purpose through an economic transaction that makes a difference in our world.
Through the board’s process of defining the co-op’s vision, they can create policies that guide and direct the general manager’s operational activities to this end, clarify the coop’s purpose to the members, and develop a process to impact the future in their community. “What makes us different doesn’t have to be something at the global level, like world peace,” Stier said. “But if we are willing to grapple with who we are in the world, we will appeal to people way beyond who we think it will and we will have made a big difference with our co-ops.”