Growing Local and National Cooperative Communities

The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) ended 2005 with—what else—lots of change! This seems to be our organizational hallmark. However, despite the challenges of a rapidly growing organization we are steadily progressing toward the objectives identified through the reorganization process of the past two years. NCGA achieved some clear successes last year; it still has some clear opportunities for improvement; and, from my vantage point in a new position, the organization has launched a busy start to a new year.

One of the reasons NCGA is able to weather so much change well is the dedication and talent of the management team and staff. Each member of the management team has stepped up to increased responsibility while the positions of purchasing and marketing/communications directors have been vacant. Staff within the purchasing and marketing departments are adapting to less than adequate access to management while we go through the hiring process for these positions. I am continually impressed with the resiliency of our staff and know that we are all looking forward to welcoming the successful candidates at the conclusion of our hiring processes.

NCGA ended the year with a substantial net profit, though not for reasons that we are necessarily happy about! Some budgeted staff positions were not filled, and some planned programs were not developed and implemented. The downside is a delay in desired services and support to members; the upside is that NCGA members will likely see a dividend for fiscal year 2005. This is several years ahead of financial projections in the reorganization proposal. At their March meeting the management team will make a recommendation to the NCGA board of directors for their consideration of a dividend to member co-ops.

Nature, neighbors, and local economies
Last month, I had the pleasure of making a keynote presentation to the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) conference in Syracuse, N.Y. What an inspiration to see more than 350 attendees gathered to share information and ideas under the theme of “Cooperation: with Nature, Neighbors, and Local Economies”! My presentation focused on the distinct market advantage of food co-ops, our commitment to the cooperative principles, and how consumer perceptions will shape the future of sustainable agriculture.

In partnering with farmers and farmer groups, it is imperative that we work together to prevent “co-option” of sustainability as a consumermarketing term by industry forces that view sustainability as a growth strategy, not a fundamental value. In co-ops, for example, we respect the cooperative principle of “concern for community” and operate our businesses with that core value guiding our efforts. I shared with NOFA conferees examples of how “community” has been co-opted in some circumstances and highlighted national corporations laying claim to consumer perceptions of “community.”

It is our responsibility to shape our messages and outreach as food co-ops in a way that reinforces the difference between community as a cause-marketing strategy and concern for community as a core value. We’ll need to do the same in support of sustainability and sustainable agriculture. At the conference we also had opportunity for dialogue and exchange of ideas to get NOFA farmers and friends connected with the many efforts of food co-ops to promote sustainable agriculture and local/regional food systems. Many thanks to NOFA and its conference organizers!

NCGA’s current priorities are to fully staff the management team, assess our program staffing levels to be sure we are able to deliver good service to members, finalize our budget and operating plans for 2006 and clearly communicate those to members, and effectively implement our national purchasing program in support of lower costs. While the months ahead will be filled with more change, as we integrate new staff into the organization and put the disciplines in place to effectively manage our new supply agreements, I am confident that we will continue to build the organization that our members need and expect.

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Robynn Shrader is CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #123 March - April - 2006