Editorial: How much is a stake in your co-op worth?

Members are the most important part of a co-operative. Without them, we are nothing.

One of the difficult questions a co-op needs to answer is how it engages with its members. It is a given that a worker co-op will have a much higher engagement rate than a consumer co-operative – simply because a worker-owner’s stake means so much more.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. All members are equal, no matter what size a co-operative is.

In a consumer co-operative, one of the key metrics that membership officers hate to look at is member attendance at meetings. Most of our biggest co-ops attract only a few hundred members to meetings. It’s such a small number that it’s not even worth working out the percentage.

Member meetings are a tradition, and something every member has a right to attend. But they are the old way. And when looking at a consumer co-operative, you cannot expect the member to come to you. You have to go to the member.

It is with this thought in mind that the Co-operative Group has gone ‘digital first’ with its membership. While member meetings will still be held for the most active stakeholders, the everyday shopper just wants the benefit of being an owner.

Looking through statistics from retail societies, around half of trade is generated by members. And presumably those members are receiving a benefit of some sort, whether it is a discount on products or a financial return through dividend.

The Co-op Group’s national membership manager Mark Robinson-Field says that the voice of a member is “enormous”, and it flows through the co-operative in many different ways.

It is his job to harness that member voice, ensure it is heard and see that the members know their stake is valued. He thinks members can realise that value by being an active participant in the shaping of products, services and campaigns.

He isn’t asking members to vote on the colour of a tin of beans, but presumably he wants members to be a part of everything the co-op offers, or rather what they want to engage in.

The issue of how a co-operative engages with its community is discussed the world over. In Canada, an academic researcher interviewed a number of food co-op managers to understand how they connect with members.

It’s the same old story as is experienced elsewhere. A smaller co-op is great at getting members involved, but once a co-op grows to a certain size there is no longer that ability to connect with stakeholders.

The Group is attempting to counteract this by appointing Pioneers in its stores who are responsible for community connection.

Having a dedicated and named person for community liaison will almost certainly improve relations with members.

Co-operatives don’t have different classes of membership, but there are members who like to pick and choose how they participate. This flexibility will make a member’s stake much more valuable.