Board governance in the Wild West
The Community Food Co-op (CFC) in Bozeman, Montana, with an active membership of over 19,000, is 27 years old. This bustling co-op serves the Bozeman community and surrounding region. We have annual revenues of $12 million selling a wide array of food and goods. Our thriving 4% Day program donates over $15,000 a year to community nonprofit groups and our EATS program provides discounts for members in need. Our co-op is not only located in the center of town, it occupies the center of the community’s heart.
Be it Western freewheeling independent spirit or just common sense, over a period of the last six years our board has developed a unique governing model. Curious inquiries from distant co-op board members spurred our board to share its professional development story with the larger Cooperative Grocer audience.
The present CFC model grew organically through the foresight, diligence, and teamwork of board members in cooperation with our general manager, Kelly Wiseman. From a desire to define policies and procedures in our own way, we chose not to use generally accepted Policy Governance principles, per se.
Generation of significant ideas happens for our board while sitting around a fire with the only outside sounds being the crunch of boots on cold, dry snow. On the first of February we gather at the B Bar Ranch high in the mountains for the annual two-day board retreat. Nine board members, our general manager, the CFC’s controller, Dana Huschle, board assistant, and board facilitator pile into four-wheel-drive vehicles to make the weekend trek out of Bozeman.
Wishing to jumpstart our retreat board development work, we hired an outside consultant to help us hone the path we hoped to pursue. Ann Marie Waterhouse of EagleHeart Consulting joined us for the beginning of our exploration. She guided us through discussions to create lists of topics such as: does the co-op’s current statement of purpose still meet the board’s needs; where do we want to be in five years and how do we get there; is the board’s self-evaluation form and process effective; what are priority goals for the board; and which items go on a wish list for future consideration?
First, the CFC board set out to clarify our co-op’s values and mission. Rising out of the values and mission would come the creation of goals. These three important intentions define the compass by which the board would perform all of its future governance work.
Beginning with the identification of values important to our co-op, the board condensed the values list to: 1) provide quality food and goods; 2) create opportunities for active involvement in community; 3) promote sustainable production and fair trade of food and goods; and 4) follow cooperative principles put forth by the International Cooperative Alliance. With values in place we could move on to the creation of a mission statement.
We sought to create a concise, 10-word mission statement. The co-op’s original statement of purpose, while still applicable, is 81 words long and lumbering! Working from key ideas in the values statement, we created a succinct declaration that has become the board’s guide by which all policies and actions are judged. It states that our cco-op will: “Provide food and goods, promote sustainable practices and follow co-op principles.” Our mission statement is printed on signs hanging prominently in our store, meeting rooms, and graces each bi-monthly newsletter.
Using the values and mission statements as rudders, the board produced the following ongoing goals:
- Meet current needs of members and have a strategic plan in place to meet future needs;
- Engage the Gallatin Valley socially, culturally, and politically as it relates to the co-op’s values and purpose;
- Significantly enhance sustainable agriculture in Montana;
- Maintain and attract a productive and satisfied staff.
Every year, through the board’s self-evaluation process, we assess the degree to which our board has accomplished these goals. Each board member completes the board evaluation form, dutifully and honestly. We compile and review the evaluation responses. The compilation illuminates areas needing further focus as well as areas of resounding success. From the board’s side, implementation of the goals happens in part, through committee work. Long-standing board committees are: finance, community interaction, personnel, nominations and process, and planning. When committee work requires a board decision, the committee chair brings the decision request to the board’s monthly meeting for discussion and decision through our meeting agenda process.
Without stepping into managing co-op daily operations, our board depends on careful, honest communication with our respected general manager to oversee the implementation of our goals. Through his management report, the general manager reports to the board monthly on aspects of finances, physical plant, staff morale, and new projects.
Board governance is a complicated dance. The choreographer of this dance is not one individual but a team. The big picture is the general health of our co-op. Keeping this image in mind discourages personal agendas from prevailing on our board.
Professional board development is vital to the overall well-being of the organization. A co-op board operating in chaos, without a rudder, invites disaster. A co-op board meddling in day-to-day operations sends a message of distrust to the general manager and in turn, the membership. To be truly effective, a co-op board must govern itself through thoughtful creation of policies and procedures while remaining on the outer rim of general co-op operations.
The CFC board of directors is grounded in the Wild West, infused with independent spirit and dedicated to honest teamwork in the quest for the ongoing evolution of professional development. We have been able to attract thoughtful hard workers who are not afraid to speak their minds to serve on our board. Our board is inspired again and again by our dynamic, light-hearted general manager and quiet, pedantic controller. Our story is not a fairy tale but real with a sprinkle of magic thrown in for fun!