Member participation key to co-op success

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Finding innovative ways for members to participate in the goverance of their co-ops is one of the keys to co-operative success, speakers at the International Co-operative Governance Symposium said on Friday.

Participation, which is one of the five themes of the International Co-operative Alliance’s Blueprint for a Co-operative decade, dominated much of the discussion during Friday's sessions. 

Jean-Louis Bancel, chair of France’s Crédit Coopératif and a member of the ICA board, described member participation as "the co-op sector`s most valuable asset."  He noted that governance is a key component of the participation section of the Blueprint, the ICA's strategy for making co-operatives the fastest growing form of enterprise by the year 2020.

Governance, Mr. Bancel said, should be a means rather than an end. And he pointed out that the only prescriptive element of the ICA Blueprint relates to governance – "never abandon the voting membership."

Other speakers at the symposium agreed that participation is a crucial issue, but that many of the most visible trappings of co-operative governance, such as  bylaws and the requirement for physical presence at meetings, hinder member participation.

“In the UK, if you have a seminar on co-op governance, it’s full of lawyers,” said Bob Cannell, personnel officer and member/owner of the Suma Workers’ Co-operative “This is putting off would-be co-operators at the first hurdle; do we have to be lawyers to be members of co-ops?”

Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice-president academic at the University of Saskatchewan and an expert on co-operative identity and social cohesion, agreed.

"There’s an entire industry out there telling you that governance is about rules and regulations – it’s a way of making the subject as deadly as it can possibly be,” he said. “Co-ops need to reframe governance and say that governance is about the purpose of the organization."

And Glen Tully, president of Federated Co-operatives Ltd., a network of 230 consumer co-ops in western Canada, said being connected to members is a crucial issue. 

“We need to make sure that we’re connected to our members and that they believe in our values and what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said, adding that co-ops should appeal to members' hearts and not just their heads.

Mr. Tully floated a suggestion for making members more aware of  their rights, privileges and responsibilities as co-op members: give them a gift certificate for the co-op store in exchange for completing an online course about co-operatives. 

While some participants were optimistic about the prospects for increasing member participation in co-operatives – especially among young people — others were less so.  Veteran U.K.co-op activist Peter Davis said there is currently a “crisis” in member participation.

“Member engagement is the core of successful governance. But most members don’t participate, he said. “What we must address is the social and cultural context in which this island of co-operation has to operate.”

The symposium continues on September 7. 

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