Understanding one’s role on the board of a consumer cooperative can be a challenge. After all, we all shop at the Co-op. We know what we like about it and where we think it could improve.
We have our own opinions about store layout, product selection, services, and pricing. We may even have ideas about displays, marketing, or outreach events.
We care about employee benefits and local agriculture and the welfare of those in our communities, and we have ideas about what the Co-op could do about those things, too.
So, once we’re on the board, we can shape those things, because we’re member-owners and now we’re in charge. Right?
Well, yes and no.
Being elected to the board of a membership organization is being given a position of trust by our fellow member-owners—whether they voted or not—that we will represent all of them and work in their collective best interest.
Being on the board of a $78 million retail operation requires accountability to its owners—all 20,000 of them—for the performance of their business and its continued viability in the long term.
So, what is our role and how do we get things done? Because, let’s face it, few of us have had experience running a business of this size.
Let’s begin by being clear about what directors are not.
- We are not managers.
- We are not members of the Co-op’s workforce.
- We are not wise advisors to people in those roles.
We have been elected to govern—to set long-term goals for the organization, to ensure proper management of the Co-op’s assets, and to make sure that the Co-op continues to meet its owners’ needs and expectations.
Our role is to determine what the member-owners want from their cooperative and make sure they get it through means that do not put the organization in jeopardy legally, financially, or in any other way.
We do that as a board, not as individuals. We give direction only through board action, and we do it via written policies that clearly define the board’s expectations for the person it has hired to manage the business—the Co-op’s general manager (GM).
We represent over 20,000 member-owners of this cooperative. Our role is
- to know what the member-owners want from the organization that they own,
- to provide written parameters within which the GM will function while giving the owners what they want, and
- to monitor the GM’s performance to ensure that the expectations delineated in written policy are being met.
The means we use is called Policy Governance®.