I’ll admit it– when I first signed up to be a member of the Co-op in 2011, I don’t think I really knew what a co-op was. To me, the Co-op was just that rad little building in my neighborhood where we’d get kombucha and coconut water before band practice. I knew they were locally-owned, had ties to Reno’s DIY punk community, and were sticking it to Whole Foods in their own small way, so I thought, “Why not? Sign me up!” At the time, I essentially thought that “cooperative” was just another way of saying “impassioned, youthful grassroots organization that seeks to positively impact their community through *~cooperation~* but is ultimately like any other company in that they exist primarily to make a profit.” It wasn’t until I started working here in 2014– truthfully, more like after I’d been here for several months– that things started to click for me. Today, I want to articulate how exactly a co-op differs from a traditional business and how you, our beloved member-owners, factor into the co-operative business model.
This whole co-op thing started in England in the 1840s with a group who have come to be regarded as something of folk heroes around here, the Rochdale Pioneers. Fed up with inflated prices for low-quality, adulterated foods (read: flour cut with chalk), this group of enterprising miscreants each contributed the equivalent of six months’ wages to establishing their own community-run grocery store that ensured high-quality staple food items for their families. Most notably, the Rochdale Pioneers are known for putting forth what later became known as the Seven Cooperative Principles, the guidelines by which cooperative businesses worldwide still operate today (Note: I know this list is published elsewhere on our website, in our membership brochure, and in various places throughout the store. But just cause we like it so much, here it is again.):
- Voluntary and Open Membership — Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
- Democratic Member Control — Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and cooperatives at other levels are organized in a democratic manner.
- Member Economic Participation — Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. They usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing the cooperative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
- Autonomy and Independence — Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.
- Education, Training and Information — Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public — particularly young people and opinion leaders — about the nature and benefits of cooperation.
- Cooperation among Co-operatives — Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
- Concern for Community — While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.
Did you notice how many times the words “member” or “membership” appear in that list? A LOT (19 times if you’re counting, which I am). That’s really what it boils down to– co-ops are owned and run by their members and exist solely to satisfy the wants and needs of these members. Picture the traditional business model as something like a triangle. Generally, those with the loudest voice and the greatest degree of control are also the fewest in numbers– figuratively speaking, situated at the top of this triangle. Think CEOs, CFOs, etc. In contrast, a co-op is maybe more like an hourglass (I could think of a better shape if I’d paid closer attention in 9th grade geometry, sorry guys). Our general manager oversees the activities of the store and is in turn overseen by a democratically-elected board of directors, who are tasked with providing general oversight and governance of the Co-op and are responsible for monitoring and maintaining the Co-op’s financial health. They’re also responsible for making sure that the Co-op operates in accordance with the Seven Cooperative Principles, the GBCFC’s Purpose Statement and Goals, and our Triple Bottom Line that measures success not just financially, but environmentally and socially as well. Lastly, the Board also provides leadership and sets the overall direction of the Co-op through member engagement, research, visioning, and setting policy.
And who oversees the Co-op’s Board of Directors? OUR MEMBERS! The GBCFC Board of Directors meets in the upstairs office of the Co-op every third Monday at 6:00pm and all active member-owners are welcome and encouraged to attend. And what’s more, all active members of the Co-op are welcome and very much encouraged to vote and RUN in our annual board elections, held annually each September.
So what does this all look like? How exactly does one get run for a seat on the Board of Directors? How do we vote? Well, I’ve exceeded my word count by several hundred words, and since I’ve really been enjoying ending these things on cliffhangers…