Tuesday, 04 February 2020 16:12

The How and Why of Co-operative Member Engagement – Ideas to Fuel Strategy

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Many co-operatives feel like they need to engage their members more. The challenge of how to engage members affects both new and mature co-operatives. Often, member engagement has been viewed as having many members participating in a co-operative’s annual general meeting. While AGM participation is one way to engage members, there are many, many other methods to ensuring that a co-operative and its members are communicating and connected, and that members’ and the co-op’s needs are being met. 

It is important to be clear on why you want to increase engagement with your members. Is it simply that you need quorum for your annual meeting? That is one option, but hopefully not only why you want to engage with your members more. Maybe you want to connect with members to ensure that your co-operative is meeting their needs? Is there a general feeling that your members aren’t as engaged as you’d like them to be? Do you want to offer them a learning opportunity or other member benefit and increase the value that they are getting from your co-operative? There are many possibilities for what type of member engagement your co-operative may want to do, and why your co-op wants to increase its member engagement. 

Key questions to consider about member engagement for your co-operative: 

  • For what purpose(s) does your co-operative want to engage its members more?
  • What outcomes do you want that you don’t now have - or what areas do you want to improve? 
  • What do your members want? What do they need? / What’s in it for them? 
  • How can you listen more effectively to what members want? 
  • What are some ‘easy wins’ to increase your member engagement? 

Assuming that you want to engage your co-operative’s members more, better, and/or more substantively, you’ll want to create a member engagement strategy. A member engagement strategy will help you be clear on what you want to do, why, how you will get there, and how you will measure your progress.

Member Motivation

It’s important to not only think about what outcomes you want for your co-operative, but to think about engagement from what a desired outcome from a member perspective would be. How will being more engaged in your co-operative benefit a member? Designing evaluation metrics and tools that fit member outcomes as well as outcomes for the co-operative is important for creating an effective engagement strategy. 

Johnston Birchall and Richard Simmons, from the University of Sterling, have done research on what motivates members to participate in the governance of co-operatives. They also explored the types of interest and incentives that people have in order to motivate their participation. 

Birchall and Simmons have developed a theory they call the “Mutual Incentives Theory”, wherein they believe people are neither inherently selfish or co-operative; that their motives are a mix of self interest and concern for others. As they note in their research, co-operatives can be a great vehicle to satisfy an individual’s desire to both meet their own needs and work co-operatively with others. 

Aligning what is good for your co-operative with what is good for the member will help ensure that everyone’s motivations and needs are met through your member engagement plan. Providing a variety of ways for members to get involved allows those with different interests and motivations to get involved. There is opportunity to engage with members in many different ways, and for different purposes. 

The Democracy at Work Institute of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives (DAWI) has a great 3 page guide to help in creating a member engagement plan. DAWI and Birchall and Simmons all note that collective interests and incentives, as well as building skills are important as motivators for members to get involved. 

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Image from: Democracy at Work Institute

Listening to Member Needs

So, what do your members want? What needs do they have that your co-operative can address? Finding ways to listen to, understand, and act on member needs is a crucial part of co-operative member engagement. Member engagement is a two-way street – to be successful in engaging members, a co-operative needs to not just inform members, but to also involve and engage them, and listen to what they need. 

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Image source: http://centerforriskcommunication.org/

Increasing our ability to listen, involve, and engage can have very positive pay offs – and the flip side is that not listening to members can have dire consequences. 

As cited in the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives’ blog, Jim Macnamara examined government, corporate, and non-profit organizations in three countries (the US, UK, and Australia) and looked at how well these organizations listen. He found that 80% of non-profit communications are devoted to sending out information/informing people (talking at members). When organizations do seek feedback, their listening is highly selective: they target preferred answers by engaging the “usual suspects,” or intervene only when their legitimacy is at risk. Standard engagement tools, such as surveys, are designed to passively collect information, not necessarily to motivate strategic action. The researcher also observed that current social media initiatives are used to publish messages rather than create opportunities for stakeholder-led dialogue.

Lack of member listening and consultation, and a resulting crisis of legitimacy was found to be one of the main factors in Co-op Atlantic’s failure. From one study on this case: “Members were isolated and viewed as disloyal for questioning the direction chosen by the leadership. This lack of consultation deepened divides among member co-operatives in different communities, which undermined confidence and ‘created a weak sense of we.’ Ultimately, Co-op Atlantic’s struggles with member engagement led to a crisis of legitimacy from which there was no return.”

Listening to what members want and need and engaging them in discussion about how your co-operative can act strategically in meeting their needs is a very important part of effective member engagement. 

Developing a Member Engagement Plan 

Once you’ve consulted with your members and listened to what their needs are, and you’ve thought through what your co-operative wants and needs for member engagement, it’s time to put all of that information into a member engagement plan. 

The Democracy at Work Institute recommends the following steps in thinking about member motivation and creating a member engagement plan: 

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Image from: Democracy at Work Institute

A few ideas to guide your planning: 

  • Clarify Purpose and Strategy (the “why”) 
  • Define / prioritize purpose (the “goal”) 
    • Active involvement in associative activities / governance?
    • Active membership?
    • Ambassadors? 
    • Value add for member? (e.g. education, wealth generation, member perk, other)
  • Define what success looks like (the “desired outcome”) 
    • Scale of involvement (e.g. grow from XX% to XX% of members involved in activity Y) 
    • Frequency of involvement
    • Depth of involvement
  • Member value and satisfaction (the “what’s in it for them”) 

Engaging members in your co-operative is critical to your co-op’s long term success. From the basics of governance and quorum for your AGM and other meetings, to listening to and addressing member needs, it is imperative that co-operatives engage their members. Since every co-operative is focused on its core purpose of meeting its members needs, every co-operative should be engaged in providing a variety of ways for members to get involved in their co-op. 

In our next SCA blog post, we’ll look at some examples of activities both co-operatives and members can take to be more involved. 


Birchall, Johnston and Simmons, Richard. What motivates members to participate in the governance of consumer co-operatives? A study of the Co-operative Group. University of Sterling. 2004. https://institute.coop/sites/default/files/resources/Birchall%20and%20Simmons%20-%20What%20Motivates%20Members%20to%20Participate%20in%20the%20Governance%20of%20Consumer%20Co-operatives.pdf 

Democracy at Work Institute. Creating a Member Engagement Plan. https://institute.coop/sites/default/files/resources/DAWI%20-%20Creating%20a%20Member%20Engagement%20Plan.pdf 

Fairbairn, Brett, Fulton, Murray, Pohler, Dionne. Governance as a Determinant of Success or Failure: What Other Co-ops Can Learn from Co-op Atlantic.2015. PDF  https://usaskstudies.coop/research/Research-Publications/Books-and-Booklets.php 

Sampson, Amanda. Organizational Listening: A Framework for Revitalizing Co-operative Engagement? Contemplating Co-ops: Creating Knowledge for a Better World. 2017. https://words.usask.ca/thinkingaboutcoops/2017/05/23/organizational-listening-a-framework-for-revitalizing-co-operative-engagement/ 


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Last modified on Monday, 31 August 2020 20:45