CGIN: Online Community
Food co-ops banded together to form the Cooperative Grocers’ Information Network (CGIN) in 1997. In the intervening years, their idea of a “low-overhead organization that cranks out products, not studies” has been realized, and CGIN continues to do pretty much just that.
Before CGIN was formed, those wanting to research other co-ops’ practices or get sample documents would send out letters or call each other by phone. Those able to take the time to answer such requests could be seen at a copy machine reproducing documents and then stuffing samples into envelopes. These tasks were repeated over and over—sometimes for the same items.
CGIN has streamlined the entire research and response process for all involved. By creating a library of sample materials at www.cgin.coop that co-ops are willing to share with one another, we’ve made it easy for those needing information to access samples or documents that they can simply use or adapt. Our basic resource library now includes:
• Over 800 different items such as employee handbooks, newsletter articles, operational forms, job descriptions, board policies, membership materials, and consumer information items;
• 422 successful recipes from some of the best co-op delis around the country;
• 24 photo gallery exhibits illustrating such things as specific departments (bulk), merchandising (signs and displays), co-op logos, T-shirts, and individual co-op tours;
• The CGIN Livable Wage model—upgraded in 2004 to include case studies, updated links, and a background memo for co-op staff or directors;
• The basic retail operations training materials produced by the Urban Cooperative Institute.
Keeping cooperators connected
Many have come to think of CGIN primarily as the listserve that helps co-op managers, staff, directors, and members stay connected and exchange ideas. Currently we have almost 400 subscribers. In November, listserve subscribers shared information on these topics: out of stock rates, experience with policy governance, projecting sales levels through an expansion, staying open on Thanksgiving, availability of used bulk bins, resolving employee disputes, bulk honey dispensers, providing food for co-op staff, key indicators for coffee and juice bars, employee discounts, management overrides on POS transactions, UNFI warehouse relocation plans, scanner installation, and turkey sales. Our listserve archive makes available all messages posted since September 1999.
Perhaps most inspiring was a challenge issued by Jeanne Lakso of Linden Hills Co-op (Minneapolis) in mid-November. She relayed the story of the members of CONACADO cacao cooperative in the Dominican Republic. Many are recovering from considerable damage done to their trees, homes, and communities by Hurricane Jeanne in September; most are likely to lose up to 30% of their income in the coming year. On behalf of the cacao cooperative, Equal Exchange was trying to raise $10,000 in donations. Jeanne pledged to contribute $100 from Linden Hills and challenged other co-ops to also kick in. Within a few weeks, the CGIN community stepped up and had pledged over $9,000, with occasional pledges still trickling in. What a show of generosity!
CGIN also operates a specialized, subscription-based listserve for membership and marketing staff. This is another lively discussion forum with subscribers willingly sharing ideas on such things as the cost of newsletters and ad rates, budgeting marketing expenses through an expansion, active versus inactive memberships, pricing for pastries, showing videos, and policies on student and household memberships. For information about either listserve, see www.cgin.coop/listserve.html.
CGIN also hosts the web discussion board for members of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA). The discussion board was more active last year as those member co-ops went through the process of discussing the NCGA reorganization. But the discussion board remains available as a tool for NCGA members to communicate with one another and for NCGA to keep its members up to date on the activities of their association. You can find information about the board, as well as links to it at www.cgin.coop/
Easier access for all
As CGIN has grown and become an important resource for co-op staff members, we have gotten more and more requests to make some items in the resource library accessible to board members as well. As of early 2005, we will have a portion of the CGIN site available specifically for co-op directors. This section will make sample board policies, committee charters, general manager job descriptions and contracts, bylaws, membership materials, and similar documents of specific use to board members directly and immediately accessible to them. At the same time, other portions of the site will remain accessible only to co-op staff, as appropriate to the items and wishes of the majority of CGIN members who have contributed sample documents and materials so generously over the years.
Behind the scenes, the work at CGIN never stops—as those of you who run websites well know! In setting up the special section for directors, we’ve also made some major changes to the way the site operates. For the most part, these changes won’t be all that obvious, but they will make the site function better for users and will reduce some of the growing obsolescence in the way our site works.
One recent change that will be obvious and that we hope makes the site easier to use is a “forgotten password” recovery system. Members who can’t remember their passwords or whose passwords have expired can have their current password sent by e-mail. There is a verification process for those requesting a password, after which an automated reply sends the password to the contact person’s e-mail address. We’ve also recently updated job postings and classified ad pages so that users can directly post job notices and ads without needing to go through me or the CGIN webmaster.
Even as we move into our eighth year of operations, CGIN continues to operate on a very modest annual budget of approximately $45,000. Thanks to the support of our members and all who contribute items, scholarship funds, and great ideas, our site continues to grow and prosper. CGIN currently now counts:
• 130 retail food co-ops as its members, with 10 suppliers, organizations, and consultants as associate members or site sponsors;
• An average of 151 people visit the site every single day and spend eight to nine minutes researching and downloading items from our resource library;
• Over 4,700 “user sessions” per month (the number of times someone lands on one of our site’s pages);
• Visits to our site by almost 2,400 different individuals each month.
We hope you’ll all make use of CGIN’s site and services and let us know how we can continue to meet your needs through the power of our online community.
*** Karen Zimbelman is Western Corridor development director for the National Cooperative Grocers Association (firstname.lastname@example.org or 707/445-4849).