Mission Statement – or (Still) Missin' Statement?

Results of the Retail Operations Survey once again show strong growth and profitability by most food co-ops during the past year. Eighty percent of the co-op stores surveyed are profitable, and sales growth among coops exceeds average single store growth in the natural products industry. Food co-ops, most of which compete in that industry, continue to win the allegiance of many thousands ofmembers and shoppers. They also continue as living models of democratic ownership and control, of businesses rooted in their local communities as well as in an international community of cooperatives.

Despite these positive and impressive results, reflections on the recent CCMA conference and analysis of the survey results underscore concerns over our future. In particular, these sources reveal that we still need to clarify co-op purpose or mission. Lack of clarity or agreement on that mission is common and is key to understanding and addressing other weaknesses.

At the CCMA conference, presenters reminded attendees of their competitors' commitment to excellent service and to changing with a changing market. By contrast, co-ops often expect customers to fit what the business already allows and are reluctant to change. The survey results echo the conference with strong reminders of conservative behavior, such as co-ops' under-utilized assets and aversion to debt, and the consequences of this conservatism, such as their slowness in generating capital and commitment for new stores. These and other characteristics hamper our ability to meet changes and threats, such as competition from mass market and natural products stores. The survey already reports that, allowing for 3% inflation, 1 in 4 co-op stores saw a decline or no growth in sales last year.

Lack of clarity about our purpose contributes to many of these problems. Yet the co-op mission should be the foundation of our identity and how we distinguish ourselves.

In her conference keynote address, Ann Hoyt described the needs and aims of cooperatives in four "C's" - succinctly summarizing generations of past and future effort: capital, control, clarity, and community.

Clarity of purpose is needed for unity of purpose. Without a clear and inspiring mission, co-ops will continue failing I to take advantage of development opportunities. Without clarity of purpose, co-ops are less likely to give excellent service, more likely to falter from internal wrangling over short-term benefits and choices (product issues, pricing policies, boards meddling in management) while larger aims and long-term possibilities go unaddressed. With a defining mission, co-ops will find it easier to answer questions of policy or practice and to meet new challenges.

Cooperatives exist to strengthen community - to weave the social fabric in which members live and find meaning. This enrichment of everyday life may be the ultimate good provided by co-ops. They build community through organizations based on democratic ownership and control of capital - capital being a primary measure of the community's resources.

Here and everywhere, democratic control of resources, through cooperatives and other means,is a crying need. Wealth is increasingly centralized, controlled by distant or anonymous sources of power; maldistribution of wealth is greater than ever; the threats to lovely life on earth are greater than ever. The beauty of co-ops, internationally recognized, lies in uniting and empowering members as an answer to abuse or neglect by private owners. When their practice matches their mission, co-ops embody democratic economics and build community.

Congratulations to the founders of a new cooperative in Madison, the Regent Market Co-op. When the neighborhood grocery closed in February, former employees and customers (with help from Williamson Street Co-op and Madison Community Co-ops) rallied to raise over $140,000 and opened a new co-op in late April. Three key staff helping form the co-op have between them over 46 years of managing the store. By June over 1,000 (yes, one thousand) members had joined and made a $100 investment. Look for the Regent Market Co-op in a future edition. Meanwhile, consider their question and answer, in a neighborhood flyer: "What is a co-op? A co-op is not a line of products or a grocery theme. A co-op is a corporate structure whereby members come together to form a business for themselves. The nearest analogy would be a credit union."

See other articles from this issue: #077 July - August - 1998