by Will Keyser
The United States is home to nearly 30,000 cooperative businesses, which generate more than $500 billion in annual revenue. Americans hold 350 million memberships in co-ops, which provide more than two million jobs and pay out around $79 million annually in refunds and dividends.
Today, though, co-op enthusiasts appear less concerned about money than with being part of a community with shared values, looking to a “triple bottom line” for the business through economic, social, and environmental goals, rather than buying into the single bottom line of profit above all else.
The Brattleboro Food Co-op has 5,800 active members who represent a very powerful base of support in our community. These shareholders are a potent force for healthy eating, not only as shoppers at the Co-op, but also in they way they influence others. That influence can be both direct, by supporting the coop, but also by encouraging others to do so.
By shopping in the store, shareholders are pursuing their own interests, as well as those of their community, and supporting an economic and social model they value. Co-op shoppers contribute to a sustainable local economy, since their new store will be a regenerative business that has a net-positive environmental impact, offering reasonably priced food and products with an emphasis on healthy, locally grown, organic, and fairly traded goods.
They can go further than that by demonstrating altruism and inviting non-shareholders also to shop in our welcoming community marketplace. Altruism is the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others. So of course, co-op owners will naturally indulge in altruism, by wanting to enlarge the number of people who can benefit.
Altruism presupposes actions without any overt personal reward. The implicit reward is to feel good in the belief in sharing good fortune. However, by promoting the benefits of shopping at the Co-op, there is a tangible reward: by increasing the number of customers, such behavior benefits not only the Co-op and its
bottom line, but also improves the sustainability of the store. More shoppers can result in the store's greater economic viability.
The greater the store’s economic viability, the greater its chance of improving the sustainability of the whole community. This “virtuous circle” can be activated in many different ways, depending upon the way owners behave in the community.
Here are some of the many ways that shareholders can enlarge and enhance our own Co-op's ability to contribute to beneficial change:
- Participate in cooking demonstrations and classes in the new in-store community facilities, and by bringing non-shareholder friends with them;
- Pass on the Co-op Deals leaflet to community groups such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Meals, Preschool Groups, Free Summer Meals Program, School Food Service Directors;
- Encourage young parents to use the children's play space at the new Co-op, enabling them to shop more easily than at other grocery stores;
- Give gifts of items purchased at the Brattleboro Food Co-op to people who do not shop there, or offer membership to those who might otherwise not have considered joining;
- Arrange recipe-tasting sessions among groups of friends, using products purchased at the Co-op;
- Distribute copies of shareholder leaflets at groups in which you participate.
The direct consequences of recruiting new Co-op members are considerable:
- More customers will result in higher sales and thus increase the Co-op's own long term sustainability and in turn, the ability to increase its contribution to the community;
- More owners, each paying $80 to become a shareholder, contributes to the Co-op's assets and enables greater credibility with suppliers, bankers, lenders, and others with whom the Co-op has a financial relationship;
- Simply to stand still, the Co-op needs to replace shareholders whose membership ends, through death, moving away, or simply no longer wishing to be shareholders; any organization needs to revitalize itself, just like a living organism;
- New shareholders bring new enthusiasm and ideas that may contribute to improvements in the way the Co-op does business or the kinds of products it stocks; new members are less likely to take things for granted.
In the cooperative movement, you may hear the idea of “engaging members.” Engaging members is an even more effective way to promote wellbeing. A very interesting example concerns Great River Energy in Minnesota. Gary Consett, the director of member services, says, “We like to think our job is about much more than selling energy and making money, it's about serving the needs of our members.” In consequence, they encourage member-consumers to use energy more efficiently. One way they do it is by offering discounts for those who turn off irrigation systems or cycle air conditioning during hot summer days when the demand for energy goes through the roof.
Another striking example, again outside food retailing, is the Latino Community Credit Union (yes, credit unions are co-ops) in Durham, NC. It serves the traditionally un-banked immigrant community and makes it easy to bank, by taking the bank to the people, rather than expecting people to come to the bank. For example, they visit churches or soccer games; they help people file for a tax ID number, so that they can open an interest-bearing account; they offer financial literacy classes in Spanish to cover home or car purchases, among other services.
Nearer to home, Cabot Creamery Cooperative's senior vice-president of marketing Roberta MacDonald says, “Lots of people assume I'm in the cheese business, but I'm not – I'm in the business of keeping our farmers farming, to preserve the life they've chosen.” She also says that without member engagement, Cabot would not have a brand. Co-op members serve as brand ambassadors in the communities where they live. In fact, the Cabot Dairy Squad Manual provides inspiration and guidelines for members to “help the company grow as no other owners of a food manufacturing operation are able to do... by integrating brand participation into your daily lives.”
There are many lessons for Brattleboro Food Co-op shareholders here. We can help others by helping ourselves, especially now that we have an amazing new store to show off and use.