Through a Newcomer’s Eyes

  | Board of Directors, Food For Thought

I’ve heard that some of our members are curious about what the Board actually does. Given that I’m new to the Board this year, perhaps I can provide a view of what the Board does through the eyes of someone unacquainted with the workings of the Board, until now.

Like many of you, I have a deep relationship with the Co-op. My parents met at the buying club on High Street that eventually became what we know as the Co-op, and my mother served on the Board when I was an infant (I was the toddler Jerelyn referred to in her January article). Our co-op is as much a place where I buy food as it is a social center and a way for me to vote with my dollars for the change I wish to see in the world. So, although I’m not new to the co-op, I am new to the Board, and in the six months or so that I’ve been attending Board meetings, the experience has been far more eye-opening than I initially expected. When I first started attending Board meetings last June, the thought of being on the Board sounded fun and important, and while it is frequently both, it has also been deeply thought-provoking; it has caused me to reexamine my concept of an effective and highly engaged governing board, and has challenged me to embrace a new paradigm for a successful business.

New Board members are encouraged to attend a seminar called Cooperative Board Leadership 101, which is run by the CDS Consulting Co-op and attracts recently elected board members from co-ops all over the Northeast. This was an enlightening experience for a number of reasons.

As we worked our way through the curriculum I was struck by the number of times the Brattleboro Food Co-op, was held up as a shining example of a successful food co-op. We were not the oldest co-op represented there that day (Putney), or the largest (Burlington), or the most profitable (Brooklyn), but we were lauded for our bravery in embarking on the construction of and move to the new building, our strength in persevering though the difficult financial times since then, and for the truly cooperative spirit which runs throughout and has sustained our organization.

This training was also my formal introduction to governing by policy. For those like me, uninitiated into the school of thought pioneered by John Carver and now employed by a great many cooperatives and other organizations around the world, Policy Governance relies on the broad membership of an organization to set out the goals or ideals to which the organization must aspire (the Ends), and the basic rules which must not be broken in pursuit of those goals (the Means). In this model, the role of the Board is not to direct operations or to make decisions which impact the day-to-day running of the business – these responsibilities are delegated and entrusted to the General Manager (the “GM”) without exception. Rather the role of the Board is to watch over the organization, and to ensure, as best we can given the tools at our disposal, that our GM is carrying out her duties in keeping with both the spirit and the letter of those Ends and Means.

So anyway, what do we do? Folks may know that we meet for three hours each month, (or maybe a bit more), and perhaps you see us sitting at a table in the store yearning to be asked a question or given some feedback, but what do we really do? What power do we wield? And when we wield it, what value do we bring to the organization? These are valid questions.

Our job, as well as I’ve been able to understand it thus far is to know the Ends established by our members (they’re emblazoned prominently on the wall of the Conference Room), to understand our Means as described in the by-laws adopted by our members, and then to read thoroughly all operating, monitoring, and financial reports from the GM, to listen intently to you, to Sabine, and to each other, and to ask questions, respectfully, but pointedly and probingly, to ensure that our co-op – your co-op – is being run as best it can for you as it was proscribed by you, our members.

To this end, we are always grateful for any and all feedback – when you stop to chat with us, write us an email, drop comments in the box at Shareholder Services, and especially when you take time out of your Monday evening to join us for dinner and discussions at our monthly meeting.

This month’s Board meeting is on April 2nd at 5:15 pm; next month’s Board meeting is on May 7th at 5:15pm; and you can always check at the Member Services desk to find out the schedule for future Board meetings. Let us know you’re coming so we can be sure to have enough dinner for everyone.

Whether you come because you’re interested, or have an important issue that you’d like the Board to address, or because there’s free dinner, please join us.

By Skye Morse