Engaging Members with Members

people talking and holding bowls

Would house parties work for established co-ops to engage their members?” The question surprised me. I was teaching a workshop on Internet organizing for membership recruitment at the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference in Philadelphia, briefly recapping the format for a house party campaign. 

House parties are a standard organizing tool for reaching out to new networks beyond those of the founders, deeply engaging communities, and breaking through the plateau that hits most startups between the 300- and 500-member mark. I was expecting my audience at CCMA to be startup members, but the group of 30 was two-to-one from established co-ops and more interested in how they might engage the members they already had.

Board members of food co-ops aren’t the only ones looking for techniques to engage members. On a planning survey the National Cooperative Business Association recently sent to its membership, the most common response to the question, “What training do you need?” was, “How can we better engage our members?” Assuming that the definition we’re all using for “engage” is “to draw into; involve,” then as a sector co-ops are looking for ways to involve members in their cooperative’s mission and the achievement of its ends.

My work for Food Co-op Initiative puts me in direct contact with the organizers of food co-op startups, who intuitively understand the need for engagement. Their groups would not be successful without deeply involving their founding members in recruiting and volunteering. 

“Startups are forced to constantly be thinking about innovative ways to engage their members,” said Bonnie Hudspeth, former project manager of the Monadnock Food Co-op (Keene, N.H.), opening in 2013. Hudspeth is now outreach and member services coordinator for the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a New England association of food co-ops. One-third of NFCA’s 28 members are startups, and Hudspeth’s new role puts her in close support of them.

“The key to successful membership drives,” said Hudspeth, “is inviting your member-owners to the table and empowering them to invite their networks to join.” At Monadnock, she did this with house parties. 

Leveraging relationships

“We call them co-op potlucks. The idea is that an active member can reach out to their network—whether it’s a peer network, friendship network, or volunteer network in the community—and really engage them and invite them to be members. It’s really leveraging the relationships that members have already established.”

In Monadnock’s case, members would volunteer to host a house party, and Hudspeth would provide them with coaching and invitation templates that could be customized and sent to guests. The host would invite her friends, co-workers, co-worshippers, and others—but not more than can comfortably sit in the house and eat dinner. “The key,” said Hudspeth, “is keeping it intimate, and very casual, so that people feel safe in asking the questions they have about joining.” 

The invitation is also to bring a dish to the potluck that uses at least one local ingredient, which becomes an instant conversation starter once all the guests sit down to eat.

There’s always a question at this point in my workshop. “Wait—we want them to join, and we’re making them cook?” The invitation to participate in the co-creation and co-ownership of the meal embodies the message, “We’re starting a co-op, and we can’t do it without you.”

After dinner, the host would start the second part of the evening by thanking her guests and sharing her story. “It’s critical for the host to be able to tell their own personal story of why they joined the co-op,” said Hudspeth. Additionally, “the co-op would share other member-owners’ examples of telling their story, so that members would see, ‘Okay, these are some talking points about what the co-op may bring to the community—from a variety of perspectives.’” 

Hudspeth would then go around the circle, meeting each person and listening to their interests in a new food co-op. The floor would then be open for guests to ask questions in a safe and open setting. Ms. Hudspeth and the host would then invite each guest to join—and most of them would. 

In addition to leveraging members’ existing relationships into new networks, house parties also distribute the work widely across the membership—a key feature for leaders who have too much to do already.

Hudspeth believes that established food co-ops can benefit from the innovations being developed by startups. “You would think that co-ops that have been around for 70 years would have touched everyone there is to touch, but that’s not the case.” Established co-ops can benefit from “the same strategies of community organizing that startups have really capitalized on, like house parties, to reach out to other networks that might not know about the co-op.”

Leadership emboldened by feedback

Dan Gillotte, general manager of Wheatsville Co-op (Austin, Tex.), is already using house parties for member engagement. “We’ve done this three or four times in the past seven years. They tend to revolve around dinners. The first time we did it, we had four separate dinners with the board. One was for longtime members, another was with the people who spent the most money at the co-op, a third we invited people to submit their email address at the store and picked randomly, and the fourth was just a wild card focus group. The key is to get different people in the room, so you hear different things.”

Gillotte said that the dinners have been held around turning points for the co-op, such as its renovation three years ago, when board owners were looking for ways to discover owners’ sentiments.

“These dinners give a chance for the board to see what owners are thinking and hear their concerns, interests, and enthusiasm. But it has also given the owners a chance to think outside of tofu and brown rice, to elevate their thinking beyond just the store, to see the co-op as an entity for change.”

Gillotte emphasized the benefit for Wheatsville’s leaders as well as its members. “There’s a big value in leadership being able to say, ‘We had these meetings, there was a lot of enthusiasm, and this is what we learned.’ These weren’t surprises because we’re largely in tune with our owners. The opportunity is for leadership to be emboldened by the feedback they get from these meetings.”

All about relationship building

The challenge for co-ops is to see themselves as two distinct but connected entities: a democratic association and the enterprise that it owns and controls. To not develop both sides of the co-op is to throw away half its wealth. One side is transactional and gains strength through sales. The other is relational and gains strength through the relationships it builds.

“Startups really highlight the importance of relationship building,” said Hudspeth, “because what brings membership past [300–500 members] is really engaging the people who are at least one step removed from the founding members.”

Suzi Carter, outreach coordinator for Friendly City Food Co-op (Harrisonburg, Va.) during its startup fundraising drive, agrees. “The one-on-one conversation is the most effective thing you can do, so you have to find ways to engage people face to face. Just because you’re sending out emails week after week, month after month, telling them how great membership is, until someone gets that personal connection I don’t think it really works.”

“With our co-op,” said Hudspeth, “the majority of my job was managing and recruiting volunteers. It’s a relationship, and relationships take energy and investment, but that’s a huge piece of the organizing—it’s worth as much time as it takes.”

With an active volunteer program and a community-organizing focus, startups may have an advantage in relationship building. At the level of hundreds of members, it’s possible for the leadership team to know the entire membership base. How can co-ops continue to engage with their members after they grow past this level and take on the responsibilities of an operating store?

With 11,000 member-owners, Wheatsville has two main methods, said Gillotte. “We tell people about the dinners in our newsletter, so they have an effect that resonates outside of the 12 people who come.” The second is at annual meetings, “where we try to do some kind of version of what we do at these dinners, to take the pulse of people, see where they’re at. I think it’s really important to check in to make sure there’s alignment.”

No doubt. But if members are only being engaged by the board and senior leadership, then engagement activities will be limited by the capacity of incredibly busy people. 

Could each co-op empower members to conduct engagement activities on its behalf? “One of the principles of co-ops is education and training,” said Hudspeth. “The community organizer’s job is to empower others, and if you’re managing volunteers, it’s all about empowering them—giving them the skills they need, training them so they’re able to go out there and accomplish any task.” 

Listening to members

Empowering members to engage other members is working for North Carolina’s State Employees Credit Union (SECU), where Leigh Brady is senior vice-president for education services. SECU has 1.8 million members and is gaining about 85,000 more per year—not by advertising, but through word-of-mouth alone. If nothing else, SECU’s members are actively engaged in new member recruitment.

“We’re a financial services cooperative, and we listen to our members,” said Brady. “That is the factor that drives our growth.”

SECU listens to its 1.8 million members with the help of a team of over 3,000 volunteers. Each of the 244 SECU branches has a 12-member Volunteer Advisory Board that meets quarterly. Its duty is to discuss and report what is happening on the ground with members in its community. The minutes from those meetings are reported up to a Volunteer Education Department at SECU headquarters, which distills them into a report that is then shared with board members and staff. From that report, SECU designs new products to meet members’ needs. “It’s like having a giant focus group,” said Brady. “We would not be where we are if we didn’t listen to our members.”

Is there an opportunity for a food co-op to empower its members to be a volunteer engagement team?

“The education and training is one of the rewards of being involved in the co-op, and I think it’s really important,” said Hudspeth. “If you’re [in leadership], your focus should be on delegating responsibility. A lot of the Monadnock volunteers gave me feedback that they’ve learned new skill sets that will then come over into their jobs. The board president has taken the model of policy governance and started implementing it in all the other boards he’s involved with. He’s crazy about it now.”

Hudspeth has also organized volunteer phone banks at the co-op. “Even with a startup, member-owners are shocked when someone calls them. ‘Wow, someone actually wants to know my opinion?’ It ends up being really fun. Invite your member-owners to make calls, because that engages them and makes them more powerfully involved in the co-op and helps them to understand it.

“If on every call they ask the question, ‘What do you love about your co-op?’, you’ve got your messaging for the next year.”

“What can we do?”

Building member engagement teams is also an opportunity for boards to discover strength within the democratic association, while still leaving the enterprise safely in the care of the general manager. More than one startup board has wrestled with “empty nest syndrome” once it has hired a general manager.

Carter talks about the challenging transition for Friendly City from an organizing startup to a retail co-op with open doors. “Experienced, active members [of the organizing committee], after it opened, got a little discouraged. They said, ‘It’s really expensive, and I didn’t want my co-op to be really expensive. I wanted it to do more outreach’—not knowing that the co-op is trying to get on its feet so that it can do all this great work in the community! We don’t want to lose people and their great energy. At the same time, our board is saying, ‘What can we do? Now we feel like we don’t do anything because doing anything would impinge on [the general manager’s] purview.’”

Friendly City’s answer? “We’re thinking about creating a special member engagement team, to help our board brainstorm how our members can be involved in the community. And at the same time, the board can be helping our most engaged members understand what the store’s needs are at the moment.” 

See other articles from this issue: #162 September-October 2012