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Board Development

In mid-June, a team from Willy Street Co-op attended the CCMA (Consumer Cooperative Management Association) conference in Pittsburgh. In addition to the expected great food and sessions, fellow Board member Jeff Bessmer and I came back to Madison with a particularly compelling message: we could do more in the confines of our Board meetings to provide Board development for Directors. On the last night of the conference, alongside an incredible view of the river and a seemingly endless buffet of delectable food, we found conversations with several other co-ops to be particularly informative. They talked of Board meetings dotted with book-talks, journal article discussions, and compelling presentations. How was it that our Board meetings were filled to the gills with important tasks and decisions, but lacked a significant Board development component?

Since my tenure on the Board began two years ago, our mode of operation has been to offer Board members a one-day retreat in February to focus on longer-term Co-op issues and Board Development & Education. A small committee of Board members, at the direction of the larger Board, would address individual Director needs at a day-long session facilitated by talented and committed consultants. The only thing is that by the next month’s meeting, we’d be knee-deep again in day-to-day issues and planning. Coupled with the co-op-networking conversations we had in Pittsburgh, we knew there had to be a better way.

Creating a nook
We began meeting in July to process the ideas we heard at CCMA. Our primary goal became creating a nook each meeting that would focus on a topic designed to broaden Board members’ capacities to lead the Co-op—a.k.a. Board Development. We wanted the topics to be garnered both from needs we knew about, and needs we didn’t... thus our two-pronged approach. We searched through national co-op consulting sites, including the CDC Consulting Network and also looked to co-ops we knew to see their calendars. After compiling a list of common development topics, we surveyed the current Board (which included long-time tenured directors) to see what needs they most recognized. We combined the topics from the two sources, then broke them down into two broad categories.

Present & Procedural

  • Member Relations and Participation, Accounting and Financial Stability, Improving Board Processes
  • Focusing on Data Driven Results, General Manager Evaluation


  • Long Range Planning and Visioning, Directors as Co-op Ambassadors, Board Development
  • Global Cooperative Structures Regional and National Cooperative Sectors

The two topics deemed most critical for Board Development were Owner Relations and Participation and Long Range Planning and visioning. (Not incidentally, these are the focus of our October and November meetings.) Our top rankings were to become the Development schedule at Board meetings for the upcoming year. Each meeting we’d focus on a topic, using a range of content resources: video, speaker, article, etc., and always couple it with extended discussion. It will occupy the first 30-45 minutes of every Board meeting.

New member orientation
This review of Board Development also led us to revise the format of the New Board Member Orientation. In addition to crucial reports from our General Manager, Anya, we spent the time focusing on Board Decision-Making Processes. This should allow incoming Board members to understand their roles and responsibilities as a Director, while immediately seeing how they can engage and participate fully and confidently early on in their Board tenure.

Owner/Board Relations meeting
As we began thinking about the calendar, we realized these Development sessions may be of interest to Co-op Owners too. So while Owners are always welcome to attend Board meetings, we’ve decided to particularly invite Owners to this portion of the meeting. A different Director, guided by a template designed by our small Board development committee, will plan each session. November’s topic is: Long-Range Planning. Meeting times, topics and locations will be posted in the Reader Board Sidebar, in posters around the store, and on the website.

The topic will be “Owner/Board Relations and Participation” and the educational session will run from 6:00–6:30pm in the Community Room on the day of the Board meeting.

Our lives are packed with outside learning opportunities, many of which we hear about but don’t or can’t take advantage of. Our goal in looking at Board Development was to bring emerging trends, practical know-how, and systems improvement to our meetings. If our content and process sound intriguing to you, we do hope you’ll join us in new learning from time to time!

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