Co-op Boards and Why We Do What We Do

In their efforts to grow and govern democratic businesses, food co-op boards of directors need to look both inward and outward.

My previous two columns discussed the expanding opportunities for co-op development in today’s environment as well as the nature of co-op values and community contributions. Like those topics, this edition’s articles about values, membership, and governance also point to important issues for co-op boards—challenges that some have already undertaken but that other boards are not yet discussing.

All these themes suggest an emerging need to define more broadly co-op values and mission—why we do what we do—and co-ops’ place in the communities they serve. In this vein, some food co-ops have re-examined their mission and have articulated a larger identity than that of one co-op operating a grocery store.

Why does this matter? Because these cooperatives have the capacity to be more than successful independent grocers. And when these organizations and their member-owner communities redefine the co-op, its greater potential is revealed and is opened to new forms of community-based cooperative development.

Why now? Self-examination is prompted by both threats and opportunities:

  • Competition is increasing, and the benefits of solidarity are driving independent co-ops to formalize and strengthen their unity with other cooperatives.
  • At the same time, with many co-ops realizing success in community-based retailing, opportunities for expansion and new ventures inevitably raise questions about co-op purpose and scope.

Seeking focused directors—apply at co-ops

Along with the essential element of excellent cooperative management, co-ops’ ability to reach a larger and more unified future will require strong boards of directors. Board leadership is a necessary condition for the process of examining the co-op’s purpose and identity. Unfortunately, board focus and leadership are weak in many co-ops. Co-op directors have the potential to stymie productive work by failing to align as a governing body.

Recently I was heartened by the evolving collaboration and leadership in evidence at a meeting of over 100 directors from 20 co-ops in the greater Northeast region. Board members met for one day following two days of meetings by managers from these co-ops. The main board session focused on defining the co-op’s purpose and led off with presentations by the presidents and general managers of Brattleboro Co-op (Vermont) and Weaver Street Market (North Carolina), two strongly successful co-ops that have engaged in redefining their mission and that have, despite very different circumstances, arrived at nearly identical statements. Also of high interest is the ongoing collaboration among several Vermont and western Massachusetts co-ops, with the boards from these co-ops working to align strategic planning calendars, mission, and identity. (The Brattleboro Co-op president will discuss this effort in the next edition of Cooperative Grocer.)

In a number of instances, redefining the co-op purpose has begun by asking questions within a Policy Governance framework. Once this approach is adopted, boards typically concern themselves more with governance and less with operations, acting primarily through crafting and monitoring policies that define expectations for management. Other approaches may also allow a board of directors to delegate management responsibility clearly and with confidence, but under Policy Governance the board’s shift in focus is deliberate and fundamental. (See the discussion by the president of Weaver Street Market, Linda Stier, “Ends: Defining Your Cooperative Advantage,” in CG #97, Nov.-Dec. 2001.)

Paradoxically, a forward-looking examination of a co-op’s identity can also surface its founding values, since earlier co-op visions quite often were about more than operating a food store. Examples from some co-ops indicate that a newly articulated purpose—as ever, only partially realized—is likely to be larger and deeper. The co-op’s mission, built through member ownership, is seen to overlap with a larger network of cooperatives, but its identity also is bound up with the citizens and businesses in the community surrounding the co-op.

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

See other articles from this issue: #116 January - February - 2005