Most co-ops have, at some point or another, encountered difficulties getting their members involved in the organization. Low engagement can reveal itself in a variety of ways, but often indicates itself through poor attendance at AGMs, vacancies on the board of directors, or declining sales. And we know that increasing membership engagement can be hard.

Here are 5 things co-operatives can do to increase membership engagement:

Incentivize engagement

There’s a lot of ways people can get involved in a co-operative. From running for a position on the board to volunteering at fundraisers, members can support their co-op in a variety of roles. It’s important for the co-op to incentivize its members to get involved. In many cases, this may simply include effective communication and education that reinforces the value that co-ops offer their members.

When it comes to thanking volunteers, a little often goes a long way. Offering volunteer appreciation get-togethers, hosting celebratory lunches after events, or member appreciation receptions are great ways of highlighting this engagement.

Many co-ops formalize incentives for their members to get more involved in the organization. Connaught Seniors Housing Co-operative in Prince Albert offers members reduced housing charges if they serve on the board, committees, or help with building maintenance. Similarly, many larger co-ops compensate their directors for their time and any other expenses incurred carrying out business for the co-op. This changes the relationship between the organization and the individual by formally acknowledging the value of their time and setting the expectations of the individual.

Steep Hill Co-op offers a unique model for incentivizing and increasing member engagement in the business through their pricing structure. Non-members pay the shelf price + 25%, members pay the shelf price + 10% and working members pay the shelf price. To become a working member, members need only work 2 hours per month at the store stocking shelves, packaging dry goods, and cleaning.


Create community

Co-ops can become complacent in how they engage their membership. For example, the annual meeting is often the single bastion for increasing member engagement in the governance of co-ops, but these forums are not the most popular affairs. Failing to provide platforms for members to voice concerns or weigh in on directions or issues, can lead to further disengagement. If members feel a sense of voicelessness or a lack of community within their co-op, they may seek out alternative service providers.

The rise of various social media outlets over the last 20 years has allowed the co-op sector new forums to engage their membership in a two-way conversation. The Facebook feed of any co-op store contains information about ongoing promotions, events, and opportunities for involvement. Similarly, the comment section on certain posts will contain critiques or opinions of the co-op’s operations reflecting members’ views. The presence of these forums can place considerable pressure on the co-op to maintain its responsiveness and opens it up to harassment and public shaming.

Some co-ops offer platforms exclusively for their members. Stock photo company Stocksy United in Victoria has a discussion forum exclusively for their photographer members to engage with centrally located worker-owners. This ongoing communication allows issues to be raised and addressed quickly, preventing tensions from building up. Members-only sections on a co-op’s website is a great way of achieving this safe space.

Be Relevant

As society changes, businesses, including co-operatives, need to keep up. People expect a certain level of conduct, professionalism, and service when they interact with a business. Co-operatives need to ensure their business meets its members’ expectations and stays relevant. This is especially important for consumer co-operatives.

The rise of online shopping and e-commerce has challenged traditional business practices by rapidly changing consumer behaviour and elevating expectations. Retailors need to embrace technology and offer consumers the service they want or risk losing their engagement.

Co-operatives also need to look good. Many co-op members are approaching retirement and the Gen X and Millennial generations are quickly becoming the largest population groups in Canada. Appealing to these generations is critical to securing their interest and engagement.

These two target markets value things like locally-sourced goods, affordable pricing, alternative forms of advertising, and opportunities to take part in meaningful ways, including online. This presents an opportunity for co-operatives. Co-ops need to highlight and communicate the value they bring to the market place to sustain support from these younger generations.


Increase diversity

It’s 2018 and diversity is important. Canada’s social and cultural make-up is changing and its business community needs to reflect these changes. Co-ops need to ensure their staff look like the community they serve and there is representation from the community on the board and committees. Whether in board leadership or simply supporting the business, people want to engage in organizations that look like them and their community.

According to a 2008 Brown Governance report 27% of co-op board positions are held by women. While lower than ideal, this figure is higher than the 14% on corporate boards. Too often, boards end up being “old (and often white) boy’s clubs” that do not reflect the communities they serve. Creating a board diversity policy is a great first step toward actualizing change and improving director recruitment.

Just do it

Don’t just talk about it, do it. Start by asking your members what they expect from the co-op and how they want to be engaged. Create a Facebook poll, mail out a survey, or leave comment cards around the office. Getting feedback directly from members will give insight into what they think about the co-op and how they want to be involved.

Take this feedback and create a plan for increasing membership engagement. Look within the co-op and determine what changes can be made to better accommodate your members. If members are more engaged in the co-op, they’re more likely to support the business and help it succeed. It pays in more way than one to increase membership engagement!

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