What does the co-op board do? Visioning is one thing -- A story of how visioning saved the co-op

by Karen Medina, board member

from the January 2018 newsletter

People often ask what role the board of directors plays in the food co-op. I believe our most important responsibilities include: hiring the general manager, job review of the general manager, firing of the general manager if it ever needs to be done, making sure the ends are kept in the forefront of the co-op, helping to organize the major communication events like the annual meetings of the owners (MOOs), the annual financial meetings of the owners (FinMOOs), and visioning. I want to take this time to talk about visioning, and share a story of how I think the 2005 3-month long visioning process saved Common Ground Food Co-op two years later. I like this story because it also ties several of the functions of the board into one memorable anecdote.

In 2007, Common Ground was given notice that it had to quickly move out of the basement of the church where it had been for thirty years. Our co-op was definitely not prepared for this sudden loss of our physical space; however, we were much more prepared than we might have been. Two years earlier, the board had initiated an extensive visioning process which in turn put into motion a long-term plan for the little co-op. That long-term plan might possibly have been what saved the co-op from closing its doors forever. Below is the whole story.

As Jacqueline Hannah, the General Manager at the time, wrote about the unexpected non-renewal of the lease:

"I did what any reasonable general manager of a tiny co-op (900 square feet of retail, $750,000 in annual sales, and no savings to speak of) would do after receiving such a letter-I put my head down and started pounding the desktop with my fists."

"But all was not as bad as my initial response indicated. Two years earlier, the co-op's board of directors and staff had led a visioning process with the co-op owners. While many different ideas and dreams arose, there was one central theme. Our co-op would need to move out of the basement where we had started over three decades before, to expand and come into the light of our greater community.

"At that time [2005], we did not have a management structure and were still led by coordinators, some of them unpaid volunteers. To get us ready for relocation and expansion, the board began a general manager search and formalized other positions such as grocery manager, produce manager, and front-end manager. [...] and, in August of 2006, finally found their general manager", [Jacqueline Hannah], "With the needed infrastructure in place, we had been planning the move and expansion to take place in 2009.

So "[i]n late 2007, when told we would not be allowed to renew our lease, [...] We were not ready right then, but [... w]e took the bull by the horns and got to work with a plan to expand and relocate [...sooner]. On Aug. 22, 2008, we opened the doors of a beautiful new store in the heart of our community, with more than double our original retail space."

Jacqueline Hannah goes on to write about all the lessons the co-op learned. My personal favorite is,

"Keep the owners engaged. We didn't know it at the time, but a key to our success was our very communicative style with our co-op owners. I wrote to our owner e-list at least twice a week with updates on the project. They knew when the store design plans arrived in the mail, the day the business plan was completed, what new staff we were bringing on board, who the consultants were on the project, all of it. During our member loan program, they got weekly updates, but as we got within two weeks of our deadline they got daily updates on our loan total. The excitement was contagious. We also held open meetings with the board and owners on many relocation issues and conducted a survey of the owners to learn what they wanted in a new store. The owners have since told us that they felt like it was really their store. Engaged owners are committed owners, and they make more loans, bigger loans, and shop more in their new store because of it."

That all happened ten years ago. Looking back on it today, I think a combination of two things saved the co-op. The first was that the board and staff together had conducted a visioning process where the owners, staff, and volunteers all worked together to develop a vision. So even when thrown a curveball, the co-op staff and community knew where we were supposed to be going, we just needed to speed up the process. The second was communication -- the management and the board kept the owners, staff, and media up to date on what was happening.

As Julie Zilles pointed out in last month's board article, visioning is a priority for the board.

What can you do? In April 2018, the board and co-op administration are planning the annual Financial Meeting of the Owners (FinMOO). This a meeting where all owners and staff hear financial reports and are invited to ask questions. Please, please watch for announcements for that event.   

I want to take some space here to give a special thanks to the people who told me their stories of the visioning events of 2005 and 2011. Even though I was an owner, I did not participate in either event, but I should have! I was a very poor graduate student at the time of each of these so I thought I had nothing to offer the co-op. I have since learned that I would have been very welcome -- visioning is for all the stakeholders.

This bit of history was compiled and commented on by newly elected board member Karen Medina.    


[Most of the quotes come from this article]

2009 December

"Common Ground Food Co-op: Small co-op expands in a big hurry"

By Jacqueline Hannah


2008 February 8

"Common Ground Food Co-op Announces New Location" [Lincoln Square]

Smile Politely

By Marissa Monson


Plus several conversations with people who remember the visionings of 2005 and 2011. A special thanks to all of you who shared your stories and notes with me! I enjoyed every minute of our conversations!