Best Practices and Balancing Acts

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Two articles in this edition comprise the cover theme of components and key challenges in food co-op membership systems. Through many years and hundreds of trials, our generation of food cooperatives has identified a comprehensive set of “best practices” around member equity and member benefits. And many food co-ops now are challenged to reform their membership systems in light of these improved examples.

Marilyn Scholl’s presentation of best practices summarizes much of what food co-ops have learned. These lessons actually go back even further, as she states: “Fortunately, we can look to the cooperative principles, along with the generations of businesses that existed before us throughout the worldwide cooperative movement, to establish effective and sustainable structures that balance the needs of individuals and of business, so both can prosper.”

The second report on membership describes an instance of how a cooperative’s democratic structure can make it a forum for highly charged social issues. In this case, the Palestine/Israel conflict led some co-op members to propose a boycott, resulting in an atmosphere of contention that was eventually resolved by a referendum.

One lesson is that social conflicts could develop in co-ops around other issues, such as banning the use of plastics and foam packaging; opposing the contamination of the food supply by certain toxins and genetic engineering; or even the rationing of scarce but essential goods, which may be needed in the interest of fairness. The Ann Arbor co-op story provides some clear points on how to be prepared for social conflict within and surrounding the co-op.

(Take note also of that story’s example of how certain political controversies generate provocateurs and fraudulent “allies” who sabotage popular efforts. Coalitions require prudent discrimination along with principled argument.)

Shifting the discussion of cooperative member-owners to the context “outside the co-op,” your editor borrows from others to comment on the decline of the good ol’ days for U.S. capitalism: fortunately, there are alternatives, and a principal one is cooperative enterprise. In this larger context, too, cooperators can address social conflicts and needs.

Summarizing leadership issues for the co-op board of directors, Candace Dow describes boards that lead. Five essential areas provide a strong framework for evaluating and planning the board’s work: general manager selection and succession, general manager compensation, elements of business strategy, leadership development, and monitoring performance and risk. Here, again, we have the benefit of years of experience among cooperatives and other bodies that are expected to reflect as well as to lead their business communities.

Financing is a particularly important element of cooperative strategy, given the organization’s foundation in member equity. Often overlooked, however, is the impact of investment decisions outside the co-op and how those decisions relate to the cooperative sector at large. Margaret Lund presents a case for “fair trade finance” and more strategically thoughtful co-op investments.

Additional reports this time include:

  • an encouraging small co-op turnaround story from Durango, Colorado—summarizing elements that other stores may need to address if they find their business in decline;
  • an update on the National Organic Coalition and its attempts to influence the Farm Bill to include stronger support for organic food research and production;
  • a summary of the recent Cooperative Grocer reader survey, which generated a lot of praise along with numerous suggestions for improvement.

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #136 may - june - 2008