Members are the foundation for any co-operative and new membership is vital to the ongoing well-being and long-term sustainability of a business. It is important that new members understand how their co-operative is different, what benefits they can receive, and how they, as members, can get involved. Membership engagement is critical to the success of co-operative businesses for two important reasons:
Membership engagement can happen organically. Co-operatives that are built to support peoples’ livelihoods (worker and producer co-ops) tend to receive consistent support. In these cases, it’s important to ensure that as the organization grows, the members retain control and do not lose their voice. Similarly, community service co-ops or consumer-owned co-ops will likely receive strong support from founding members and those that firmly believe in the co-op’s purpose.
Organic member engagement may not be sufficient to ensuring a co-op’s continued member and financial growth. Co-operatives should be proactive when it comes to member recruitment, retention, and appreciation. A big part of this will come from how the co-op markets itself and communicates with its members. Other strategies might include more personal interactions with members that highlight their role in the co-op and directly engage them from the outset.
Boards and managers should consider relevant strategies that will help onboard new members of the co-op to encourage their participation in the co-op’s governance and loyalty. These five strategies can be used to help orient new members of a co-op.
Upon approval of new members, the board/management should provide each member with a package containing important information about the co-op. Depending on the preferences of members and resources of the co-op this could be delivered in print, online, or made available in a ‘members only’ section of the website. This package could include:
Depending on the work your organizations does, face-to-face member meet-ups might help folks get better acquainted with the business. This might focus on new members exclusively, or it could be ongoing, regular events. Some co-operatives offer learning opportunities to members that focus on the co-op as well as important, relevant topics. The United States Federation of Worker Co-operatives, for instance, facilitates regular member meet-ups and conference calls that encourage connections and exchange of ideas.
Investing in events that demonstrate the value the co-operative offers members can have significant benefits. Introducing new members to the board and management can facilitate community building, open discussion, and encourage further engagement with the co-op. A simple wine and cheese or more formal training could provide a forum for learning and appreciation.
Provide members with access to information about the co-op and a forum that can respond to their questions and concerns. This might further a member’s learning of the co-operative, orient them to their role/responsibility as a member, or simply provide an opportunity for engagement.
Consider developing a regular forum for communication with members. This might include social media posts, an e-mail newsletter, or regular bulletins. Ensuring members are aware of what is going on with the co-op gives them the opportunity to participate.
Monthly communication might include important upcoming dates (e.g. nominations open), service information (e.g. weekly specials), and other news (e.g. new developments).
Invite new members to provide their initial impression of the co-op along with the kinds of information they would like to receive. Offering some incentive (e.g. a gift card) for completion might increase responses. Use this information to develop new resources and respond to the concerns members are raising. Facilitating an ongoing dialogue with members from day one demonstrates the co-op’s openness and important role members have in a co-op.
Develop a robust strategy
Creating specific resources for onboarding new members is only one part of a member retention and growth strategy. Marketing campaigns, messaging, community support, and being competitive are critical factors in determining whether members will support the co-op over other organizations. The relationship co-operatives have with their members is, by design, unique and important. Communicating this difference to members and incorporating it into the business will go a long way in setting your co-op apart from other businesses. In turn, this will help the co-op prepare for a number of challenges from fluctuating markets to maintaining a full board of directors.