It is often said that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

In my many years of working with cooperatives, I’ve found that those who have experienced a time of member unrest can often trace it back to a lack of transparency. The co-ops that have recovered the best from such difficulties have done so by letting the sun shine in.

Adam Schwartz, CEO, The Cooperative Way
Adam Schwartz, CEO, The Cooperative Way

Transparency can take many forms, such as having a bylaws provision welcoming members to attend portions or the entirety of board meetings. Posting board agendas on your co-op’s website and in the lobby. Making bylaws easily accessible to members. Having an election process that is fair and equitable for both incumbents and new candidates.

Transparency is a critical building block of trust, and the more the better. This is the reason most government agencies are subject to “sunshine laws.” In my opinion, citizens, like our members, have a right to see how their institutions are being governed and managed. Such policies and practices build confidence in the system and act as a natural check on the power of those in charge.

We live in an era when, because of the Internet and social media, our members have unprecedented access to information about the energy industry, cooperatives in general, and distributed energy resources. Doesn’t it make sense for them to get that information directly from their electric co-op and not a third party?

Back when I was a lobbyist, my former boss once said to me, “You are going to have to make quick, on-the-spot decisions. If you are comfortable seeing the results of those decisions on the front page of The Washington Post, then go ahead and make them.”

Imagining that my actions could be publicized for all to see was a remarkably effective way for me to broaden my perspective and truly consider the consequences of my decisions.

As co-op leaders, we can all benefit from my former boss’s advice: Assume you’re operating under a sunshine law, and your actions and decisions will, and should, be available to everyone.

Take, for example, IRS Form 990. These are public documents that anyone with an internet connection could find in seconds. Why not consider putting that on your co-op’s website? Many already do. Sure, members might have questions. But it is an opportunity to tell your co-op’s full story in a transparent way. And a curious member is more likely to be an engaged member. It may bring some challenges, but we’re up to meeting those challenges.

Transparency, integrity, and fairness are keys to building trust with your membership. If you practice these values consistently, even members who disagree with a specific decision will be more willing to accept it because they have a reason to trust you.

Some of the changes I’m suggesting might be challenging to implement—just like a bright light can make it harder to see at first. But as your vision adjusts, the illumination makes it easier to see your work and find your way forward.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at:aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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