- Kyle White

What the heck is Membership Engagement

Defining member engagement for a specific organization is often tricky. It can also be hard to measure. But defining member engagement for your organization and understanding how to measure it are two (not mutually exclusive) prerequisites to a solid membership engagement strategy. So, it pays to take the time to understand what membership engagement means for your co-operative.

Two types of membership engagement

Before getting too far into it, let’s first have a look at the types of member engagement available to co-operatives. Generally speaking, there are two types: financial and organizational.

Here’s their basic outlines:

  • Financial engagement is supporting the business of the co-op (i.e. shopping at the co-op, working at the co-op, or selling to the co-op).
  • Organizational engagement is playing a role in the organization (e.g. volunteering, voting, serving on boards) but also includes reputation management (ie: branding and how members talk about the organization).

Very successful co-operatives, like MEC, get both right. MEC delivers impressive organizational engagement, which is achieved through a variety of mechanisms, such as astounding images on Instagram, contests, promotions, values-based storytelling and sharing unique member experiences. Add this rich reputation management to their member-only policy and the 5 million+ member co-operative proves to be impressively agile and financially successful. This financial success in turn allows them to achieve even greater organizational engagement. Here we have one type of engagement feeding the other in an oscillating loop with new feeds being added all the time as existing members encourage new members to join.

Let’s look at these two types of engagement a bit closer.

Financial Engagement

As we saw with MEC, successful co-operatives generally have solid financial engagement. If members use the co-op’s services or purchase its products, they support the business of the organization and it does well.

When members do not financially support the co-op it has an immediate impact and can certainly weaken long-term sustainability. This is especially true for smaller co-ops or worker-owned businesses that rely on a smaller membership base.

As a co-op leader, recognizing where your core revenue sources and supports are coming from and how to remain relevant and valuable to them is vital to the well-being of the co-operative.

For example, if you’re part of a producer co-op, making sure to show members how you are benefiting their independent businesses and moving their product, as well as working to create new markets, is vitally important. If you’re a consumer co-op, reminding members of their ownership and ability to influence strategic direction might be important. And if you’re a worker co-op, perhaps clearly engaging membership in decision-making is most important.

Whatever the case, make sure you know your core supports and revenues, and the financial objectives in engaging with your membership (increased donations, delivery rights, sales, production or labour, etc).

Organizational Engagement

In young or smaller co-operatives, organizational engagement is often taken for granted. In this case, there tends to be a core group of individuals dedicated to the co-op willing to put in the effort to ensure its success. Similarly, the reputation or brand is often handled in a fairly willy-nilly way and the personality of the organization’s brand reflects the core individuals involved.

Over time, this situation can create a free-rider problem and burnout within the core group, not to mention brand confusion in the marketplace once key members move on. Planning for the next generation of board members, customers, volunteers or workers is just as integral to the co-op’s survival as a good sales strategy or a case for support.

For larger or older co-operatives, it’s is important to ensure the purpose of the business remains to deliver on a promise made to members. Membership engagement is a way of measuring and aligning operations, strategy, marketing and vision with membership feedback and requests without losing out to mission creep. Because, while you can’t please everyone, the point of a co-operative business is still to serve the membership and their interests.

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Understand your value proposition

Co-ops need to plan for member engagement and ensure they are providing opportunities to engage in ways that make sense. The opportunity to engage in the decision making and ownership of the business, whatever that looks like, is a central component of the value co-ops offer their members.

In fact, ownership and influence is often what sets co-operatives apart from its competitors. It’s probably why some folks shop at Co-op stores instead of Sobeys and it’s certainly part of the reason why workers at the London Brewing Co-op don’t apply for jobs at Molson.

The key value proposition (the opportunity to own and shape a business, for example) needs to be articulated for members to maintain their organizational engagement. If this support is not maintained, members may lose sight of the co-op’s value and shift their financial and organizational engagement elsewhere. Understand and repeat the promise and value of the business to your membership – over time it will pay dividends.

Create platforms and channels for engagement

The online stock photo retailer, Stocksy United, has an online platform for their members. It fits because their members are around the globe (65+ countries, in fact) and the business operates online. Not everyone has this level of tech savviness or need for global reach. Finding the right platforms and channels for your organization is no less important, however.

Make sure there are a variety of platforms and channels for membership feedback. Create a rubric for prioritizing how this feedback is responded to. Maintain a clear display of interest and concern for the voices of individual members. Together, this will help keep a large and disparate membership engaged in the well-being of the business.

For a consumer co-operative in the north delivering on this promise may include selling snowmobiles beside oranges. In the south, it may mean providing more local product at the expense of price competitiveness.

If you can define it, you can measure it.

As we’ve seen, membership engagement can be difficult to define. This means it’s also hard to measure. Measuring membership engagement is key to understanding if your engagement strategy is working or not. So, getting both right matters.

The number of volunteers, attendees at an annual meeting, investors in the business, and posts shared on Facebook can all be indicators of member engagement. The challenge for leadership is to understand if they’re performing well. Choosing the right indicators of member engagement can help with that.

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Get to the heart of the matter

Whatever way you choose to measure engagement, make sure it gets to the heart of the business and what your membership values.

If you have 10 members, perhaps it’s a monthly coffee row outing or beergarita Fridays. For those with large memberships, creating promotions or VIP email lists or social media groups to create discussion and push messaging could be a better solution.

Understanding how, when, and why to listen to members is a key challenge for boards and management of co-operatives. Be creative. But remember the tried and tested too. Sometimes the suggestion box is simply the right solution – just make sure you actually read and respond to the feedback.

The classic AGM

A familiar, time-tested indicator of engagement in the co-op sector is the Annual General Meeting (AGM). Second tier co-ops (co-operative of co-operatives), like Federated Co-op Limited and Arctic Co-op Limited, typically have very high attendance ratios and can fill large meeting halls. By ratio, the member associations of these federations generally have a lower turnout at their AGMs. The Saskatoon Co-op Association, for example, had a very large group with over 400 attending this year’s AGM, but this is a small fraction of their over 100,000 members.

Smaller co-ops are much more likely to have more members engaged in the business and governance of the organization.

For example, members of worker co-ops are highly motivated to stay active in the co-op as their livelihood is attached to the success of the organization. Similarly, individuals living in housing co-ops are much more likely stay involved and aware of the co-op’s operations as it directly affects their day-to-day lives.

Co-ops operating in the retail space may not draw the same level of interest as people likely have other options and may not be as directly concerned if things are running smoothly.

To further complicate things, membership engagement usually increases when there is a contentious issue being discussed or if there is perceived conflict affecting the organization. Resolutions of amalgamation and dissolution brought to the AGM are sure to attract large crowds. When things are going well, member apathy is much more likely as people tend to be content.

So, is AGM attendance a good measure of membership engagement? Yes, but the importance you give this measure should depend on its value for the organization. For a small worker-owned co-operative that brews beer, hopefully there’s a near 100% turnout to the AGM. For a consumer co-operative with tens of thousands of members, perhaps there’s a better measure of engagement, like sales, foot traffic, memberships sold, visits to a member-only forum on your website, or downloads of the Annual Report.

The board of directors

As mentioned, the success of any co-op is typically attached to the financial support of the organization by its members. A co-op that does not have the support of its membership is guaranteed to see steady declines in its performance. Stores without customers, markets without producers, and workplaces without employees cannot function. So, financial engagement is perhaps the most important metric, but, like attendance at AGMs, there are other elements to consider.

One of the better indicators of membership engagement revolves around the board of directors. Having a full board and competitive elections at annual meetings is a clear indication that members want to be more involved in the governance of the co-op. Board vacancies and successive acclamations are warning signs members are either complacent or not interested in becoming more involved.

Similarly, what a board looks like is another indicator of engagement. A diverse board is a great sign that a variety of groups and ideas are being engaged.

Competitive elections and diversity on a board of directors are two clear signs of healthy membership engagement. Working to increase participation on both fronts is a good place to start.

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Technology should play a role

At a time when technology governs how we communicate and social media sites have larger populations than most countries, online engagement is critical for co-ops.

The Battle River Power Co-op uses Twitter (@BRPowerCoop) as a platform to let people know about downed powerlines, promotions, and maintenance schedules. Steep Hill Food Co-op tells the 680 of their 900 members following them on Facebook when veggies have arrived and what’s on sale. The Saskatoon Co-op Association recently used an online Ride into Spring Contest to engage hundreds of members in a chance to win a bicycle. Conexus Credit Union is exploring fintech solutions and Affinity Credit Union introduced blockchain voting for council voting at its most recent AGM.

The examples and opportunities are endless. Once you have a clear goal for your membership engagement and trusted feedback channels, learning tactics and strategies from other co-ops and being creative will help ensure you hit the mark and engage in a meaningful way.

Tell us how your co-op is doing with its membership engagement and the tactics you’ve found successful.