In the Blueprint for a Co-op Decade, one of the five pillars is “participation” with the stated goal: ““Elevate participation within membership and governance to a new level”.
I am not sure how this will be measured or even if it realistically can be measured. Of course, participation is really what make a co-op “cooperative”. The word essentially means “work together”. This pillar also attempt to address the rather passive nature of ownership that exists in the consumer sector (food co-ops, credit unions, etc.).
From my experience, a lot of co-ops don’t seem to really want their members that involved except as consumers. The demutualized Group Health Cooperative (PNW) created incredible barriers to voting (members had to opt-in a certain number of days prior to the vote or meeting and figuring out how to do that was almost as complicated as figuring out how much a procedure would cost out of pocket).
Most co-ops, in my opinion, use relatively passive methods: signage in the store and blurb in the newsletter. What should co-ops do to meet this goal?
I’m mainly thinking about consumer co-ops since the worker co-ops tend to have a fairly engaged membership (although I imagine larger worker co-ops might have problems as well). Some things that hinder participation that I see all too often:
- Nominating committees that screen out potential board candidates instead of inviting people to run for office.
- A nominating process that privileges connected social groups within the co-op.
- A committee structure that only includes directors.
- Not providing childcare for membership meetings
- Not providing interpretation at meeting or multi-lingual publications.
- Not enabling direct communication between people running for the board and the membership.
Here is one approach:
Assiniboine Credit Union has a very proactive path for its board nomination. Each year, its nominations committee conducts a gap analysis of the current board to determine areas where the board needs support (this is based on a number of criteria). As they note on their website:
“ACU’s board is committed to strong, responsible and ethical governance of your credit union. Integral to this commitment is ensuring that the composition of the board has an effective and well-rounded mix of skills and experience in the following areas: finance, community development/social inclusion, human resources, co-operatives/credit unions, community involvement and leadership/business acumen.
In addition to the mix of skills and experience noted above, the board wishes to be representative of the members and communities we serve. We strive for gender balance, ethnic and cultural diversity, and diversity of age and life stage.”
The nomination committee will create an “endorsement” for candidates that fill the gap, but that doesn’t preclude other candidates from running. Sometimes, even incumbents don’t receive the endorsement because they don’t meet the gap criteria.
Keeping Participation Centered
There are other things that co-ops can do. A credit union here in Olympia has a monthly social event at all of its branches so that members have a reason to engage with each other and staff outside of the day-to-day business. At Union Cab, we tracked engagement outside of normal operations and considered ways to support that work. Ultimately, it seems that the co-op leaders need to see the co-op as a socio-economic enterprise, not just a business. We are creating a society.
For example, the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op based in Madison, WI is actually the fourth largest democratic organization in the county. Its membership is bigger than every other community in the County of Dane except for the City of Madison. The other two organizations bigger than the co-op are the Madison Metropolitan School District and the County Government. We should definitely start thinking of our consumer co-ops in this light. Likewise, directors at these larger co-ops should also see themselves in a role similar to a city council member.
It would be great to see organizations such as NCG, USFCW, and NCBA develop some methods for tracking aggregate data, create a database of practices used by co-ops to spur participation by sector, and otherwise create a bigger discussion of how to get members to engage as collective owners. What does participation look like in a healthy co-op? I think that for a start it would include competitive elections, a committee structure with members and directors (and staff if not a worker co-op), and ownership activities (such as social events, letter writing campaigns, and other activities aimed to allow people to engage as owners outside of normal operations.