It is said that members support co-ops because they trust that whatever the co-op does is ultimately done in their best interests. Here at our co-op, that’s certainly true. But as Canadian co-op scholar and writer Brett Fairbairne points out in his essay, Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Co-operatives, “the second part of trust is that the co-op must not only promote member well-being: it must also be seen to do so–seen clearly, repeatedly, and over time to be making members better off.” This second part is what creates and sustains a co-op’s transparency.
“A co-operative is made transparent,” Fairbairne continues, “not only by good communications but by structures and operations that members can see are designed around their own needs.”
That is, our co-op’s communications–from our website, newsletters and social media to in-store signage and product labeling–are only as valuable to our members as the systems and products they describe.
Window to the World
Transparency lets you see something clearly, but even better transparency lets you see beyond that thing to the greater conditions and contexts that inform it. Take a carrot in our produce department, for example. Its label tells you the price, and perhaps that it’s organic and from a local farm. But with additional transparency, you can also see the big picture, such as why small farms are vital to our local economy, and why organic farming practices are sustainable and better for the environment, especially in a time of rapid climate change.
Standing there in the produce department, you could see right past that carrot out into the local, regional, national and global reasons why buying that carrot at our co-op is a far better choice than buying a conventional carrot somewhere else. In a flash, that extended view would connect your simple purchase to the socio-economic, environmental, health, and political values at our co-op’s core. These core values are expressed in our co-op’s Ends Statement.
With good transparency, members can see “through” their coop (and its products and services) to the markets, forces, and conditions in which it resides.
Here’s another example of our co-op’s powerful transparency: our recent By-Law revision process and vote. Faced with decades-old By-Laws, we asked ourselves: how can we create the best, most transparent and inclusive process to bring our By-Laws up to date? What we then did was:
1) Convened a workgroup of board, staff, third-party co-op advisors, and member-owners
2) Created a first draft of the revisions
3) Engaged with member-owners and staff via all co-op communication channels. Shared the draft and a list of significant changes
4) Reached out to veteran member-owners for feedback
5) Ran the draft past our co-op’s attorney
6) Ran the draft past our Board of Directors
7) Scheduled open meetings for feedback and discussion
8) Printed entire proposed draft in Annual Report along with a list of major changes
When the voting was over, 97% of our voting member-owners chose Yes, and overwhelmingly approved the new By-Laws. Looking back, we can all be proud of how the entire process both met member needs and did so with excellent transparency. In fact, we can look right through that process to the big picture and see how a strong democracy (like our co-op’s) can deliver what its members need (updated By-Laws) when good values (our Ends) align with great process and…transparency.
Tam Stewart is our Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board President