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Board Governance Tips for Indigenous Co-operatives

Good governance is an important part of a co-op’s success. Creating the conditions for good governance and efficient decision-making takes effort and planning. For Indigenous co-operatives, this can be an even bigger challenge. Dealing with a complex, highly regulated environment while navigating local politics and building a new business can place a lot of stress on your board members. Thankfully, there are supports available and we’re happy to work alongside your board to access them as you learn and grow together.  

Also, if you’re building a co-operative on Nation or among First Nations, consider applying these three governance tips.  

Ensure Representation  

For any co-operative to be successful, it needs to ensure the right people are involved and they all agree on the business’s purpose. Similarly, the board needs to represent the groups it serves. This might mean some legwork to help members understand their role in helping the co-op succeed.  

For co-operatives that serve multiple First Nations, like River Select, this will include extensive conversations with leadership. And if your co-op is focused on serving a specific community, like the Old Crow Co-op, you may need to work hard to help folks understand what a co-op is and how it’s different.  

If your board is representative of its members, it’s more likely to identify concerns early, respond quickly to problems, and include a range of viewpoints. Bringing people together can be tricky but making sure the board represents the members will set you up for success.  

Incorporate Tradition  

Starting a co-op and building your board may sound like a new and overly formal way of doing things, but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, co-ops need to have a board of directors, but there are lots of opportunities to incorporate traditional ways of knowing. Many co-ops ensure that an elder will serve as a board member to offer directors guidance in their work. At meetings, you can allocate time for prayer or ceremony to help inform decisions and empower your co-op’s members.  

You know best what values and traditions you’ll need to help build your co-op. Speak with an elder for guidance and always ask questions on how to create an inclusive, supportive business.  

Accommodate Established Processes  

Indigenous peoples rely on formal institutions and long-established ways of knowing to inform their decisions. When you build a new business, it’s important to respect and work with these processes and institutions. Some of these may have been imposed by federal regulation, while some processes may be informal or unique to your community. This might be a tricky space to navigate, but there are always people willing to help you out. Seek out knowledge keepers in your community to help guide local activities and work with business experts to ensure your co-op is set up for success.  

Be proactive. Identify opportunities for your co-op’s board to engage or work with Chief and Council or invite the local EDO or Lands Manager to serve as a non-voting director or on one of the co-op’s committees. Seek out advisors to help you avoid mistakes and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  

Keep Learning  

Joining a co-op’s board has a steep learning curve. You deal with a complex legal space, navigating local dynamics, setting up a new business, and trying to fulfill your duties as a director. It can be tough. Fortunately, there’s help out there. Look around your community for support and guidance. And, if you need help understanding your role as a board member, what you’re responsible for, and how to build a great board culture, check out our Board Basics workshop. If you want to dive deeper into governance and some of the challenges co-ops can face, consider signing up for our free Good Governance Matters online course. 

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