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Odds and Ends

A Look at Our Cooperative Mandate to Nourish and Enrich

by Ben Becker, Newsletter Writer

For many Co-op Owners, it is not always clear what role our Board of Directors plays at the Willy Street Co-op. To many staff, this is not always clear either. As the elected representatives for over 35,000 shareholders, Board members have a monumental responsibility. Yet, their impact is often subtle and not so easy to perceive. Many of the concerns our Owners have about our stores such as product selection, operating hours, or how our shelves are stocked are outside of the Board’s direct influence. Yet the decisions our Board of Directors makes reaches into every aspect of not only what we do every day, but what our identity is as an organization. 

A prime example of the Board’s far-reaching influence is their responsibility to review and approve the Co-op’s budget each year. This decision may be one of the broad strokes, but it informs how we commit the resources we have at hand—resources that may be utilized for improving institutional knowledge, or developing close personal links between Owners, Board members, community, and staff. Even more than that, the participation the Board has in our budgeting process influences our priorities and provides some of their more immediate direction for the organization. Still, while this heavy fiduciary duty may fall on their heads, determining how each dollar will be spent, each purchase that will be approved, or which tactics will achieve the overall strategy, are all minute decisions in which the Board will not interfere. 

This level of removal from the day-to-day operations of our Cooperative may seem limiting at first glance, but it is in fact a very empowering aspect of the Board’s role, and one which invites a more democratic channel to selecting our organization’s leadership. By delegating authority to management to handle operations, our Board of Directors is not limited by a need for expertise in the grocery business. The Board’s policies create an appropriate level of separation between Directors and the everyday operations so that qualified managers can attend to business while the Board can maintain a set of standards to evaluate performance. 

Most primary of Board policies is the Ends policy. This policy sets forth a broad vision for the organization and what it is intended to achieve. The language given by the Board of Directors as our Ends is as follows:

Willy Street Grocery Co-op will be at the forefront of a cooperative and just society that:

Has a robust local economy built around equitable relationships;

Nourishes an enriches our community and environment;

And has a culture of respect, generosity, and authenticity.

All Board policies are written to govern both how the Board will perform their duties and what is expected of operations and management in the course of overseeing the Co-op’s business. While their policies are necessarily prescriptive, they are also relatively broad and vague in much of their language. By providing room for interpretation, the Board gives the flexibility to management to determine how best to fulfill the intentions of the Board’s directive. A good demonstration of this is the approach to reporting on the “Communication to the Board” Policy. Section seven on this policy requires that the Board be informed, “should the GM believe that any of the Board’s policies should be clarified, amended, deleted or made more specific.” This language is rather straightforward, and staff interprets compliance with this section to be achieved so long as they call out the policy language they believe needs to be revised. Compare this with another section of the same policy: “Make the Board aware of relevant legal actions, media coverage, trends, public events of the cooperative, or internal and external changes.” What is considered relevant is ultimately up to management to determine, and under the current interpretation, management defines relevant changes as those “that have impacted or are likely to impact staff, operations, the Board, sales projection, or our community…” Under this policy governance model, any interpretation of the policy that could be considered reasonable should be accepted by the Board. This is very much the same approach applied to achieve compliance with the Ends Policy. 

ENDS AND MEANS

Unlike other policies the Board has created for the governance of the cooperative, the Ends Policy is far more visionary in scope. Still, the approach of allowing management to interpret how best to accomplish the intentions of the policy remains in regard to the ENDS. To put it another way, as the Board determines the Ends, operations will provide the Means to achieve them. Matching the far-reaching scope of the Board’s Ends, management interprets the accomplishment of these goals as being reached through a myriad of methods. There are a number of great examples of how our operations make Ends a reality. 

Retail ready lab

Through the work of the Retail Ready Lab, an incubator program in which local vendors who are new to retail sales are assisted by Willy Street Co-op staff in learning what it takes to successfully supply vendors, the Co-op furthers the pursuit of nourishing and enriching our community, one of the aspects of our Ends. At the same time, the Retail Ready Lab’s payment of local vendors and graduating many of them to supply our regular product mix also helps us to achieve another area of our Ends, in that this practice promotes a robust economy built around equitable relationships. 

In translation

Management has also worked to achieve the goal set forth in our Ends policy of furthering a culture of respect, generosity, and authenticity by continuing to offer plain language and Spanish and Hmong language translations of Owner documents and information so that non-English speakers can feel more comfortable shopping in our stores. These are only a few ways that Willy Street Co-op operations continue to pursue the realization of the Ends which we are assigned. 

Other means

In reporting to the Board of Directors, management has identified over 100 strategies, programs, partnerships, activities, or forms of funding the Co-op does to bring about the vision of the Board’s policy. Each year, operations not only reports on the status of these endeavors but highlights new and significant means as well. In 2019, those means which were seen as particularly noteworthy included the continued offering of the $5 Dinner each month at Willy North; our efforts to increase staff compensation, including a raise in our base wage; a significant milestone in our partnership with Community Shares of Wisconsin in which we reached a record of more than $300,000 in charitable giving in one year through the CHIP program; the first discarded waste audit in our Cooperative’s history in which we demonstrated a success rate of 81%; the development of product endorsement guidelines for our staff to use in selecting products so that they closely reflect the values established by our Ends policy; and a new mural at Willy North resulting from engagement of staff and our local community in partnership with Dane Arts Mural Arts. 

Just as what will constitute compliance with other policy governance policies is a matter of interpretation for management, so too are the means by which operations will accomplish the Ends. In reporting to the Board on how their Ends policy is achieved, Co-op management has broken the Ends statement into three aspects of how the cooperative can be “at the forefront of cooperative and just society…”. Each of these aspects of our mandate—a robust economy built around equitable relationships, nourish and enrich our community and environment, and further, a culture of respect, generosity, and authenticity—is individually interpreted. The interpretation of each of these aspects sets forth several strategic standards that management uses to determine how an activity forwards our Ends. How a particular endeavor fits into management’s interpretation of compliance is incumbent on that program or project’s fulfillment of these strategic standards. 

Often times, specific projects or activities are seen as not only fulfilling several strategic priorities simultaneously but frequently accomplishing more than one aspect of the Ends. For example, in 2019 management reported to the Board that the activity of adding 33 new local vendors was one way in which we met the strategic priority to “Support and grow our network of local Vendor,” a priority by which we, in turn, achieve a robust economy built around Equitable Relationships. However, adding new local vendors can be seen to not only have a positive economic impact on the local sphere, but it also helps to nourish and enrich the community as well. 

Nourish and Enrich Our Community and environment

Identifying the strategic priorities to engage in so that we might nourish and enrich our community and environment demonstrates some of the best things Willy Street Co-op does and how our staff, Owners, Board members and managers all see their organization as more than a grocery store and as a force for positive change both at home and abroad. In order to report on compliance with this aspect of the Ends policy, management has identified four strategic priorities:

1. Creating an accessible and vibrant food culture within the community by promoting access to local foods, food security, and collaboration among businesses in the community.

Creating an accessible and vibrant food culture and providing access to local foods is truly central to our business. Putting locally grown and manufactured groceries on our shelves is just the face of this strategy, however. Creating access and food security also means making sure more people can get their hands on the sustenance they need. We accomplish this through several initiatives. Our participation in the SNAP program at each store and the WIC program at Willy North means that those who are financially vulnerable can utilize these resources and help keep these dollars flowing back into the community. Access to our local products is also augmented by the Access Discount program, and we committed $244,505 in Access Discounts in Fiscal Year 2019 (July 3, 2018 through June 30, 2019). Willy Street Co-op doesn’t just use its own products to address hunger either. In the past year, we have continued to promote our food donations collection, ultimately donating 7,695 pounds of food to pantries and food banks, as well as supporting the Pantries of Plenty Community Fund Drive, where we contributed $10,000 for six food pantries. Working to fight hunger and food insecurity is something that can be done through more than just improving food access and supporting distribution, it can also be accomplished through education. The Co-op has proudly offered 153 classes and consultations for free or at fair prices to the community in order to educate about local foods, nutritious and economical eating, and cultural cuisine explorations.

2. Increasing economic opportunity in our community by offering local employment, opportunities for local producers, charitable contributions and partnership to public and private partners

Willy Street Co-op sees providing economic opportunities as an important way to nourish and literally enrich our community. By working to employ members of our community at wages that are competitive or livable, we put dollars in the hands of staff who can support our local economy and community through their spending, so we see our employing of over 400 people as an essential and direct way to economically support the community. The majority of staff are also eligible for full-time benefits such as health insurance and a Co-op-supported retirement plan. These benefits can create more economic stability for our staff, both supporting them as community members and creating greater spending power. 

While employment is by far one of the biggest ways we support the local economy in terms of dollars dedicated, we also work to economically enrich our community through partnerships and charitable giving. An important partnership that creates economic opportunity is the one we have with Sharing Spaces and Innovation Kitchens, who partner with local growers to process 8,261 pounds of local produce in order to make them shelf-stable and available for winter.

Charitable giving and providing for community events is also a major focus for the Co-op. We reported last year's donations of $42,855 to local organizations for events and providing $60,000 in community event sponsorships. We also supported schools to the tune of $8,339 to through our SCRIP Program (schools buy gift cards at a 9% discount and sell for full price). 

As a cooperative, Willy Street Co-op also sees supporting other cooperatives as an important way to build a stronger community. To do so, Co-op staff often share their knowledge and expertise at cooperative events like the UW Small and Strong Conference in order to educate other co-ops on best practices in addition to providing mentorship and technical support to neighborhood, Regent Street Market and other co-ops.

3. Furthering intercultural development in order to foster greater diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Promoting a diverse, and inclusive community helps to enrich our community by promoting a variety of views and cultures. The Community Reinvestment Fund has proved a valuable tool in this pursuit, as it has provided the funds necessary for grants to other organizations such as the Bayview Foundation to increase intergenerational learning in their Kids Cook program, or the Briarpatch Youth Services for their Northport Street Team connecting at-risk teens with work and service opportunities, and also Groundswell Conservancy to create land security for immigrant and minority farmers, and Wisconsin Books to Prisoners for Canteen Cuisine. 

4. Continuing, advancing, and researching practices that promote environmental sustainability, and the betterment of our community spaces. 

As environmental threats such as climate change promise to have drastic consequences for not just our planet but for our community and local farmers as well, nourishing and enriching our environment is more important than ever. In order to evaluate our impacts, both negative and positive, Willy Street Co-op measures and shares our performance with cooperatives nationwide regarding our sustainability. This form of reporting looks at areas such as water consumption, energy use, waste production, and carbon footprint. To reduce our dependence on carbon-based energy, we have created a diverse energy portfolio, which includes our generation of renewable solar energy in partnership with Legacy Solar, and our purchase of wind-based power through the MG&E Green Power Tomorrow Program. 

For the first time this year, we got an in-depth view of how we perform in managing material waste when we conducted a food waste and discarded materials audit at all five sites (the three stores, our Production Kitchen, and our Central Office). Through this work, we established a baseline of performance, as 81% of the waste generated by employees and customers was discarded correctly. 

To reduce our carbon footprint, we have continued our composting efforts at all sites and added a composting station at Willy North for the Commons. In addition to organics recycling, we regularly engage in recycling electronics via Cascade Asset Management. Additionally, in order to manage material waste, we have continued to work towards reducing consumption of single-use plastics with the introduction of items such as cardboard biodegradable berry packaging, certified home compostable produce bags, and compostable straws. 

By perpetually working to nourish the environment and care for our community, operations management continues to work to not only maintain a healthy grocery business but an organization that fulfills the vision our Board and Owners have set forth. As the Board, Owners, management, and staff work together towards an ever-evolving set of policies and goals, we can look forward to our cooperative having a positive impact on our community and our planet.