It’s Super Bowl month, and this got me thinking about that most classic of “big game” meals: chili. I think what I love most about chili is how everyone has their own recipe, with creative tweaks, special ingredients, and flourishes that make the dish unique to them.

Thinking about this column on co-op transparency, it occurred to me that the way co-ops approach this important principle is sort of like a chili recipe. There are innumerable ways to accomplish it, and co-ops are always coming up with unique and interesting techniques and ingredients. But in the end, the result is something we’re all fans of: a trusted co-op and an informed, engaged membership.

My formula for co-op transparency continues to evolve, but after years of trial and error, the following is a basic recipe I’ve settled on.

Ingredients

Equal parts:

Honesty

Openness

Access to information

Accountability

Plus—just a pinch of risk

Honesty

This is a simple one. To build and maintain trust among our members, they have to believe that we’re committed to providing full, unvarnished, and appropriate information about how their cooperative is run. Be sure you train your staff and your board to know what information they can discuss with members and to never say anything about the co-op that is not true.

Openness

Think about the ways you can facilitate your members having visibility into the governance of your cooperative. One way to do this is to invite members to a board meeting. If you haven’t done this before, start slow. Maybe open up the first 20 minutes of each meeting to a Q&A session. Even better, consider an open-forum discussion.

Access to information

Your members shouldn’t have to go to heroic lengths to find certain information about the co-op. Make documents they have a right to see easily accessible. Start with your bylaws, board agendas, and board-approved minutes. Are you posting these on your website? If not, you should consider it. Other documents include your Form 990, which every member has the right to review. They can get it through government websites, so why not get it directly from you?

Accountability

One of the ways we ensure accountability is by making it easy for members to vote for directors. Is your co-op holding regular board elections? When was the last time you updated your election process? Do you allow for members to vote by mail and electronically? These are all ways to show your members you value their input.

Risk

In deciding how transparent to be, we must assess whether the information we’re making available could be misused to hurt the co-op. In addition, we need to recognize that, for legal, privacy, and other reasons, some information must remain confidential and not made available. These are very real concerns and should be taken seriously. There are risks to too much transparency. But we shouldn’t allow fear of what could happen to limit our desire to engage members. In my experience, it’s usually preferable to err on the side of transparency.

Transparency is itself an important ingredient in the larger cooperative program. I might argue it’s even the main course, an ultimate goal of all our component principles. Transparency is more than a happy consequence of good management and good governance; it’s the lifeblood of an engaged and satisfied membership.

Bon apetit.

(If you have your own transparency recipe, please feel free to send it my way.)

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) 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 e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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