Co-ops in the Present and Future Communities

“Listen up! We’ve got a problem here.”

A warning from ten years ago about food co-op governance and boards of directors remains pertinent.* While some co-op boards provide excellent leadership, I still occasionally hear complaints that the board is making the manager’s job more difficult. Some co-op boards and managers may not have another ten years in which to get their act together.

Prompted by both threats and opportunities in a changing environment, many food co-ops are contributing to building a stronger common identity. Retail managers and the National Cooperative Grocers Association have been visible leaders in these efforts, which at the local level have largely focused on operational improvements.

Boards of directors are extending and deepening this growing alignment, and some boards are examining and redefining the co-op purpose. The present edition has a report from New England on an important example of collaboration among co-op boards. And the Cooperative Grocers’ Information Network now offers a website section accessible to all directors of its member co-ops.

Expanding the circle of “we”

The reshaping of food co-ops toward a more strongly shared identity and future has been characterized as “expanding the circle of ‘we’.” There is a need to overcome isolation and to grow beyond a stance based on how our co-op or group is different. Expanding the definition of “who we are” involves transcending exclusively local or even regional identities.

Not surprisingly, much work remains to be done to unify organizational members and leadership and to attain more effective sharing of programs and resources. This agenda is large and urgent. Co-ops’ growing interdependence—“optimizing our resources system-wide”—is reflected in activities such as expanded joint purchasing, shared manager training, and stronger branding. Such interdependence also points toward a shared identity, and this necessarily involves the boards of directors.

What distinguishes co-ops from privately owned retailers that carry the same or similar products? Old answers to fundamental questions—about co-op purpose and why we do what we do—may not be adequate. A retail co-op that lacks a more thoughtful purpose than “providing quality food at reasonable prices” is in danger of becoming marginal to its community. On the other hand, rethinking purpose can help co-ops position their organizations for an expansive future.

Look in—look out

The years ahead, however, are likely to be volatile. Co-ops’ challenges are prompted in part by success, yet we should anticipate a difficult future, and not only in grocery retailing. Anyone in this country with open eyes and with the nerve to look ahead knows that major problems and disruption are already here and are worsening.

For example, current federal government practices in the fiscal area (not to mention criminal behavior on several other fronts) are extremely shortsighted and reckless. Loss of public policy funding and contraction of the dollar, followed by higher interest rates, are likely—a 75 percent chance of a major contraction within five years, says Federal Reserve chairman Allan Greenspan, and he’s probably soft pedaling the situation. These conditions will affect independent enterprises looking for continued access to inexpensive debt capital. In such circumstances the self-help financing that is characteristic of cooperatives may be more important than ever.

After reading this edition’s several contributions, note a topical thread linking sustainable fisheries and producers, co-op mission and identity, and a key recognition by some co-ops: “We can no longer plan in isolation.” And consider that in redefining themselves, co-ops can help prepare for additional social and environmental tsunamis that are likely to arrive in the coming years.

One key is to define purpose in a way that acknowledges the cooperative’s responsibility to, and responsiveness to, the needs of its community. Referring to our base in “the community” evokes earlier periods of cultural renewal and social struggle—and those days will be returning.

*"Creating Boards That Lead," by Ann Hoyt, appeared in CG #59 (July-August 1995).


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

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