Why is Our Cooperative Struggling?

It is widely recognized that agricultural cooperatives are founded on seven distinct principles.

  1. Voluntary and open membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Members’ economic participation
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education, training, and information
  6. Cooperation among cooperatives
  7. Concern for community

Although some cooperatives adjust the first two principles, in general, adherence to these principles allow agricultural producers to collectively own assets of production that they might not otherwise be able to access. Simply put, the cooperative business structure works, and it will always be needed by agricultural producers so long as they participate in markets with very large buyers and sellers or lack the ability to effectively transfer cost increases and risk downstream. 

However, these principles add some complexity to successful management. Occasionally managers and directors feel their cooperative is not meeting their expectations. Their frustrations often originate with the challenges presented by cooperative principles and a misunderstanding of how those principles apply to successful cooperative leadership. Here are a few examples of complexities that might describe your cooperative.

We struggle with member loyalty.

Cooperatives are owned by their customers, so one would expect that cooperative members would naturally be loyal to the business they own. However, cooperative managers often complain that their members are only loyal to price. Cooperatives rely on their members economic participation for profitability, but most feature open and voluntary membership. Just like any other firm, cooperatives must offer their customers a reason to do business, but it must be more than just price. If cooperative members are choosing your competitors, they may need to be educated about the value of the cooperative’s services, the value of shared profits, or the value of the cooperative’s influence on market power.    

We struggle with recruiting directors with the skills we need.

Cooperative directors are elected from among the membership. Members, in turn, are users or customers of the business. The implication of democratic member control is that directors are selected from among a group of relatively similar people with similar skills and backgrounds from within a defined geographic region. Compared to other forms of corporations, a cooperative can’t always recruit directors from other industries or with specific professional backgrounds. On the other hand, a cooperative board has incredible customer insight. 

We struggle with directors who want to control managerial decisions.

Another implication of democratic member control is that cooperative directors are not only customers, but they themselves are managers of their own business ventures. Most likely, the directors of your cooperative are also very successful managers. However, the director role is very different in purpose and function from that of management. At times, cooperative directors might fall back on what they know best (operational management) if they aren’t familiar with the role of the director (setting policy and strategy). In addition, cooperative directors may need education about the industry or business model of their cooperative. For example, a director may be very familiar with cotton production, but not understand retail pricing and inventory control at their cooperative farm store. Or a director may be familiar with grain production, but not understand the economics of milling and bagging feed. 

Education is a key method for helping a struggling cooperative. There are many professionals ready to assist a cooperative board with specific knowledge and education to help them overcome these struggles. Look for help from your local bank, accountant, lawyer, and cooperative extension service.

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