Member Linkage: Getting Input from the “Silent Majority”

Member Linkage: Getting Input from the “Silent Majority”

Columinate | 09-01-2001

As membership in a cooperative grows, board and staff often find themselves wondering how they can best reach those people in their memberships they don’t often hear from—the silent majority. Forging a relationship with all co-op members (from the very active to those who are not), getting their feedback and hearing their vision for the co-op’s future, has challenged many a co-op organization. What boards need especially, is the kind of information that just can’t be gleaned from suggestion boxes or customer satisfaction surveys—although those are excellent methods for member input in operational issues.

Co-ops in search of answers to big-picture questions from the membership are relying once again on a tried-and-true method for feedback—membership meetings and forums. But remove that picture from your mind of the same ten people hacking away at the same old issues in a musty store room, getting nowhere. Today’s savvy cooperators know how to get the most from the opportunity to talk face to face with members.

Weaver St. Market in Carborro, NC has been hosting weekly member forums for most of this year. Invitations to the forums are sent via email and through announcements in the newsletter. Each week 25-30 people sign up to attend forums on either the long-range vision or operational concerns. So far, 800 people out of their 4,000+ membership have attended a forum. Cat Moleski, a member of the Weaver St. board said, “If the future you are considering will have a big impact on the membership, it is worth the expense.”

Ruffin Slater, general manager of Weaver St. Market (and facilitator of the forums) explained why they are putting so much into it. “We realize the risk of not doing it. As we grow there could be a backlash, and from that we could lose time. We have goodwill as a foundation, and we want to deepen the relationship.”

It doesn’t hurt that they have Panzanella, their member-owned restaurant, to host the meetings. Slater stressed though, that you don’t need a special facility. “The key is not the restaurant part, but a way for members to participate without it being an onerous process.”

Slater believes any co-op can figure out how to make a meeting attractive to members, but no matter what, you need to put forth resources. “Our philosophy has been, if we’re going to do it, we need to devote the resources to its success.”

Even if co-ops don’t hold forums regularly, the opportunity to take advantage of critical mass at co-op meetings should not be overlooked.

Ann Waterhouse is a board member at Willy St. Co-op in Madison, WI, as well as a CDS group facilitator. She recently used her skills to help the board get valuable information from members attending the annual meeting. “I was approached by the member services director and another board member about doing a large group evaluation of the co-op.” The co-op had been in its new location one year. The board wanted to find out more from the membership what they thought about the current store as well as their thoughts on the future.

At their particular meeting, 80 of those in attendance broke up into smaller groups of seven to nine people to answer specific questions posed by the board about their newly expanded store. They recorded their comments on clipboards, and a representative of each small group reported to the larger group. The whole process took about an hour, and was a lot of fun for participants. Their comments were then synthesized into themes, with summaries going to the general manager on specific operational issues, and long-range feedback going to the board.

“It’s important to look at how to pull members in. Also, the questions the board is asking need to have a larger base of people helping find those answers. That’s not going to happen just by people walking in the door and spending money. Members also need to know that the board is hearing from people,” Waterhouse said.

From this process, the Willy St. board is looking at following up with members by holding 2-3 forums in the coming year on goals and directions. Waterhouse added, “These meetings will build on a positive experience. We’re looking at ways to follow up with members as an ongoing way of doing business with them.”

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