The World Is Burning

And What Is River Market Doing About It?

By Matt Ludt, River Market Board Director

Global Warming. Local Producers. Small Farms. Nuclear Energy. Fair Trade. Downtown Stillwater Economy. Genetically Modified Organisms. Twin Cities Metro Sprawl. Food Safety. Invasive Species. Organic Farming Regulation. Livestock Treatment. Natural Food Deserts. Fracking. Community Recycling. Women’s Health Rights. Food Production Practices. Truth in Labeling. Sustainable Agriculture.

The 4700+ owners of River Market Community Co-op are passionate about 100’s of issues.  The co-op as an organization may share your same values or have complimentary values.  You may be wondering what the co-op can do to improve the world beyond just selling natural food and health products. This article is a primer to outline practical ways for you as a co-op owner to engage River Market effectively and see greater change as a result of the cooperative’s activities.

It is useful to start by considering that your interaction with River Market, or any other cooperative, is constrained by the following three axioms: 1) The cooperative is a for-profit operation that must heed the lesson that if there is no margin, there is no mission. 2) When you have seen one co-op you have seen one co-op.  River Market’s social, cultural, economic, and demographic characteristics differ from other co-ops.  3) As a democratic organization that is tasked with representing all of its 4700+ owners on a wide variety of issues, River Market can’t please everyone all of the time; patience and understanding are essential.

Understanding the goals of the co-op and how they are measured is primary.  River Market expresses its goals through our “Ends” goals: as a result of everything the co-op does, River Market seeks to cultivate a healthy community through its equitable economic relationships, positive environmental impacts, and inclusive, socially responsible business practices.  Since 2010, the General Manager (GM) and the Board of Directors have spent two months at the end of each summer reviewing what progress has been made during the prior year towards making our Ends goals a reality.  This group also examines what changes to our Ends are needed for the future. The Ends goals are the standard against which the co-op’s operations are measured.

Practical Tip: If you see that your values relate to the co-op’s Ends goals, you should review the annual Ends Reports. From there you can understand what attention and progress has been made relative to your goal and all the things that the cooperative does.


Practical Tip: If you have submitted your thoughts to the Board on a topic related to our Ends statement, you probably want to know when those discussions will be had. Certainly your submissions are relevant to our analysis and discussions at our August & September meetings; they may also be addressed during the year as a part of our issue study discussions, which are scheduled annually as a part of our work plan.

River Market abides by a set of policies which include limitations on the co-op’s activities. These “B-policies” are designed to ensure that our primary business is secure and successful, while also creating marginal profits for added progress towards our Ends goals. For example our B-policy on asset protection does not allow the co-op to operate without proper insurance on its assets; we would not want to forgo protecting our assets in favor of putting that money and attention towards advancing our Ends goals. This is a simple example of the B-policies; others include good financial management, business planning, staff treatment, customer service, and emergency contingency plans.

Practical Tip: If your values directly relate to the co-op’s operation, you will want to understand B-policies. For instance, if you believe the co-op needs to commit to protecting the downtown economy, you may want the board to consider an operational limitation that “the co-op may not source supplies from others when they are available from downtown businesses”. It is essential to recognize the ways that values also exist in the operational limitation B-policies.

It is essential to understand the Board of Director’s oversight of the GM. The GM is the Board’s sole employee.  The Board recognizes the GM’s performance as being synonymous with that of the co-op. The GM gets all the credit and takes all the blame. Hence the Board’s work across the year is minding whether the GM has stewarded compliance with the operational limitations (policies) that have been set forth.  Annually, the Board reviews whether the GM is leading the co-op towards reasonable progress in achieving our Ends goals. That is the oversight nature of the Board’s work.

From time to time co-op owners have asked the board to get involved in the management of day to day operations, to actively quarterback a particular store issue, and to investigate various decisions that have been made. That is not conducive to good governance nor good management. Even if the board was comprised of 9 cooperative grocery store managers, it would be chaos to use monthly democratic meetings to second guess River Market’s GM in his oversight of 50+ employees and $7 million in annual grocery sales. Further, this micro-managing would be severely demoralizing to the GM and undermine his leadership amongst staff hierarchy.  The owners elected the board to set and monitor the goals and policies that best ensure the cooperative remains financially sound, legally compliant, and making progress in achieving the Ends goals.  We are committed as a board to overseeing the GMs adherence to River Market’s policies, reviewing (and revising as needed) our policies, and thoughtfully setting the vision for our cooperative.

Practical Tip: Take advantage of the consumer comment box, the Contact Us portal on the website, and the open forum at board meetings. Whether it is the owner comments section at the beginning of each board meeting or the multipage submissions given to the GM and Board, you have an opportunity to articulate how you believe your values and the board’s values correspond on particular issues. For operational concerns the GM and staff will timely response. There after your ideas and beliefs will be incorporated along with the supporting and conflicting input of other owners. Together they will be included into Board’s bigger work over the months and years ensuring our policy compliance and refining our policies & goals. Feel free to encourage other likeminded owners to provide their submissions too. 

The last important kernel is the role of good judgment. Every time the Board evaluates compliance with limitation policies and progress towards our Ends goals, we ask critical questions: Was there enough data? Were the interpretations of policies reasonable? And does the data from the whole year demonstrate compliance/progress? Sometimes we require more data or recalculations; in those cases, we then review the matter again in 1-2 months. If there were continued problems or non-compliance the Board takes action.

Practical Tip: The monitoring process above is where your comments are directly influential. Your observations can be a valuable addition to the data demonstrating compliance or non-compliance. If you question whether the co-op has truly made progress towards a component of the Ends goal, your submission will be a part of the Ends progress examination. The same goes for the B-policies examination. If the board recognizes a deficiency in the co-op’s goals progress or policy compliance based on your submission, you will recognize a change in the future co-op operations!


Practical Tip: Another place where your comments are directly influential is policy and/or goal amendments. We routinely see that these need tweaking – sometimes it is making a policy more specific or more general, and other times a policy or goals are rewritten in a new direction all together. Your submissions may assist in revealing the need for a change.

Cooperatives are incredible entities; they are both economic businesses and social organizations. Our co-op membership has varied, deep values rooted in health, the environment and the community. River Market makes an incredible impact on the St. Croix Valley in the day to day grocery sales as well as those other activities and expenses that improve and enrich the lives of our owners and our neighbors. Those improvements can also come in the issues around which you are passionate.  Effective advocates will seek first to understand before expecting to be understood. Those owners who understand how progress is measured towards achieving the co-op’s goals and the governance method of that progress will have the key to achieving harmony between their issues and the co-op’s activities. If you have more questions about the methods described, please let us know. Otherwise we look forward to hearing and understanding your values, your issues, and your passions.