Governance and member engagement were two of the main topics discussed at this year’s Practitioners Forum in Manchester. The forum looked at the best ways to engage members and customers as well ensure an effective governance structure.
Kit Papworth, chair of Anglia Farmers and director of his own farm, talked about leadership and management practices in agricultural co-ops. Formed in 2003 following a merger, Anglia Farmers is now the UK’s largest agricultural purchasing organisation, with a turnover of £250m.
“We are truly a national company now. Anglia Farmers purchases on behalf of over 4,000 farmer members,” explained Mr Papworth.
However, the success of the business has also made some members less likely to engage with the co-op, he added. “There’s apathy and an element of being happy with what we do […] But I would like members to turn up and actually engage with us,” he said.
Anglia Farmers is currently undergoing a skills assessment process to find out what skills board members think they have. The organisation has also recently formed different committees on remuneration and business management.
Enhancing board effectiveness
Also speaking at the Practitioners Forum, secretary of Central England Co-operative, Jim Watts, explained how a number of changes have taken place in his society over the last year.
Within the former democratic structure of the old Midlands society (which merged with Anglia to form Central England earlier this year), 48 members sat on four regional committees, and elected a board of 16. Under the new democratic structure, the board comprises 12 directly elected members, including three employee directors with a term of office of three years and a maximum term of nine continuous years, plus two independent non-executives which the board appointed this year.
Following the election earlier this year PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducted an independent skills review. PwC highlighted that skills were part of the jigsaw but that board effectiveness was also about composition, processes, behaviours and activities.
The exercise was confidential and the management was not involved in it, said Mr Watts. “It was helpful, if nothing else, for directors to reconfirm and think about their roles and responsibilities.”
Membership is the heart of marketing strategy
A successful marketing strategy for co-ops must be centred on membership, according to Di Bateman, head of membership engagement at the Midcounties Co-operative.
She emphasised the importance of gathering data to enable co-ops to market relevant material to customers, followed by building loyalty and maximising this.
One of Midcounties’ most successful campaigns has been engaging with students in their region; During freshers’ week they distributed goodie bags to students in a campaign that resulted in 3,000 new student members.
“The real challenge is to make members use their cards more, and the key is how to tell the story of membership. It’s not like a Tesco card,” said Ms Bateman, adding that colleagues needed to tell a consistent message to customers. Some delegates also suggested having member prices for co-operative products.
Top five tips to engage mass membership
Tim Hughes, open government programme manager at think tank Involve, shared results of a research study they conducted. Three years ago, Involve helped develop Pathways Through Participation, a two-and-a-half year research project that aimed to improve understanding of how and why people participate and how involvement changes.
“What makes co-operatives special as a movement?” asked Mr Hughes. He explained how designing engagement should start with thinking through the purpose of engagement.
Following a group discussion, participants came up with five key tips for mass engagement:
1. Emphasise how members can make a difference
2. Promote values and principles
3. Give members a good reason to participate
4. Be clear and approachable
5 Share successes and inform members of results