Thoughts on the November 4, 2017 Co-op Cafe in Greenfield

[I attended the Co-op Cafe event sponsored by the CDS Consulting Co-op and the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association -- and was moved to share the following thoughts with some of my fellow attendees.  On reflection, it seemed like it might be useful to post my thoughts publicly -- if only, perhaps, to attract the attention of others who attended similar Co-op Cafe events this year in other locations around the U.S.]

Fellow Cooperators:

This is an experiment, so please bear with me.  I am writing to a somewhat random list of folks who attended Saturday’s Cooperative Café in Greenfield, sponsored by the CDS Consulting Co-op and the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association.  My purpose is to generate some dialogue and, perhaps, to make a bit of a course correction in the regional and national conversation among food co-op board members both regionally and nationally.

As the organizers made clear in the presentations they used to frame the discussion, we serve our cooperatives, and represent their members, in challenging times.

When I first joined the board of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society in 2003, our co-op had a more or less uncontested 25 percent share of the local grocery market.  The talk was of how to grow.  We consistently paid out a substantial patronage refund each year.

No more!  Our co-op is on track to finish the year in the red.  Sales are drifting downward.  Workplace issues are on the increase, as economic pressures on individuals mount and co-ops find it more and more challenging to be generous with employees.

Given all of that, it was refreshing to participate in such a positive and lively event as the one we were treated to in Greenfield.  How useful to take a step back and consider the positive impacts our co-ops have on people and communities.  How helpful to think about how all of us – elected trustees and trusted employees – contribute to the successes we achieve.  How vital it is for each of us to take stock of what we can do, as individuals and as members of our co-ops’ teams.

I nevertheless find myself wondering whether others share my interest in taking the conversation to a higher and more intense level.  Why?  Well, a couple of things really struck me about Saturday’s proceedings.

The first was that the only thing we heard from our national organization – the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA, currently doing business as National Co-op Grocers, or NCG) was a pre-recorded talk from Shiela Ongie, NCG’s sustainability manager.  She talked about “the new normal” and described NCGA/NCG as “a business services cooperative.”

The second thing that struck me was how often the informal chatter at the tables turned to various crises that boards of individual co-ops have confronted recently.  At once co-op, the board has had to hire six general managers in seven years.  At another, board meetings became so contentious that it was impossible to conduct meetings without an outside facilitator to maintain order.

My sense is that we are too disconnected from each other and from our national organization.  We should be sharing our stories – our troubles and our triumphs – with each other.  And we should be engaged in active dialogue with NCGA about this “new normal” and what we, together, are doing about it.

As it happens, we have an excellent model in the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association.  It has been around in one form or another for more than a decade and, unlike what we have at the national level, the NFCA has always been a forum at which board members and GMs (plus other key co-op employees) have held freewheeling and frank dialogue about what’s really going on.

Our business ties, however, are at the national level – largely through the national buying program of the NCGA through which co-ops combine their wholesale purchasing power to acquire goods from UNFI, the nation’s biggest distributor of organic and natural foods.  Are you aware of how interdependent this makes your co-op with the other co-ops of NCG/s eastern “corridor”?  Did you know that one NCG co-op (PCC in Seattle) is so big that it’s exempt from these interdependencies – in essence, this co-op is its own NCG corridor?

I have a vivid memory of attending CCMA in 2005 – yup, that long ago – in Albuquerque and hearing the first president of NCGA explain what this new organization (born as a merger of several regional food co-op organizations) was all about.  I raised my hand and politely asked when the boards of member co-ops would have a chance to participate in the work of this new association.  The NCGA president told me to be patient; that it would take a while to get the national buying program off the ground.  She promised that once NCGA had fully launched those important efforts, it would turn to the kind of work one would expect from a national association.

Regrettably, NCG never did that.  Instead, it dropped the “A” from its trade name (but not its legal name) and now describes itself as simply a “business services cooperative,” as we heard from Shiela Ongie.  Understanding the need for connection among boards, NCG pays the CDS Consulting Co-op (e.g., the folks who led us on Saturday – Michael Healy, Marilyn Scholl and Mark Goehring) to superintend our gatherings, but it avoids engaging with us directly, much less being accountable to us.

Saturday’s Co-op Café was my idea of a good time.  I enjoyed making new friends, connecting with old ones, and having animated conversations about why and how our co-ops make a difference in our communities.  But I yearn to join with directors from food co-ops everywhere in taking the conversation to a higher level – so that we understand what we are accomplishing as a player in the national economy.

In my judgment, the most important and inspiring thing ever written about co-ops remains the widely circulated essay by Brett Fairbairn, “Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives.” The most important of those three concepts is cognition – “the glue that keeps the co-op and its members together when both are changing,” according to Fairbairn.

He concludes: “Each co-operative will have to find its own approach and its own mix of communication practices, educational activities, research functions, units, and policies that support the cognitive processes of the organization.” That’s true of us as individual co-ops and as a network of cooperative grocers.  As the elected representatives of the owners of that network, we need to take our cognition to a higher level – to get past bland generalities and cheerleading based on the mistaken assumption that everything else, from what happens in our stores to the details of our national buying program, is off-limits as “operations” or taboo as potentially too contentious.

What do you think?