Putting the Fifth Principle into action: co-ops focus on governance training

Canada's Gay Lea Foods Co-operative is one of a growing number of co-ops focusing on training programs for directors and delegates, 

When the Rochdale Pioneers first drafted a set of principles for co-operatives more than 150 years ago, one of those principles was promotion of education.  Today, after three revisions of the principles, the principle that co-operatives have a responsibility to educate their members  remains an essential component of co-operation.

The importance of governance training was one of the themes explored by participants at the International Co-operative Governance Symposium this week in Halifax, One of the speakers at the Saturday morning session was Quintin Fox, Director of Training Development and Capacity Resourcing at Gay Lea Foods, one of Canada’s largest dairy co-operatives.

Mr. Fox was working for the Canadian Co-operative Association in 2008 when he was first approached by Gay Lea to help them develop a training program for its directors and delegates. In his current role with Gay Lea, he is continuing and expanding the program, which in just five years has had a significant impact on the co-op’s success.

The co-op has 60 delegates elected by the membership, and is the pool from which board members are elected.

“We wanted to ensure that the delegates were as well prepared as possible when they moved onto the board,” Mr. Fox said. “We started by looking at what kinds of skills and competencies were needed around the board table, so we could see where the gaps were and where we needed to focus,”

Inspired by the work of the Plunkett Foundation in his native U.K., Mr. Fox then worked with Gay Lea’s Training and Development Committee to develop an eight-module “foundation program” that included such topics as the roles and responsibilities of delegates and directors, communication skills, financial governance and strategic planning.  Since then, Gay Lea has initiated an advanced program for directors and delegates, a training program for employees on co-operative values and a partnership with the Quebec-based dairy co-op Agropur to introduce the sons and daughters of members to dairy co-ops and the co-operative model.

Mr. Fox said Gay Lea’s focus on education has had tangible results, including an increase in the number of delegates running for the board, an important component of board succession planning. 

While Gay Lea is a relatively large co-op, smaller Canadian co-ops have also invested in training. Careforce, a Nova Scotia home care business which converted from private ownership to a worker co-op five years ago, has a mandatory training program dealing with both the co-operative model and business operations.  The training is offered not only to members, but also to other Careforce employees.  (Employees are required to invest C $2,500 in the co-op and work a minimum number of hours to qualify for membership)

“In addition to a training program for people who are already members, it’s also a recruitment tool for new members,” said Joel Stoddart, business manager and a member/owner of Careforce, who also presented at this morning’s session

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