Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair, Oklahoma State University
In a recent national project, academic researchers, cooperative managers and members, USDA, agricultural foundations and other stakeholders collaborated to identify the critical issues facing agricultural cooperatives. A two-stage Delphi survey was conducted, followed by expert panel sessions in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The material below summarizes some of the findings from the project.
Cooperatives are owned and controlled by a diverse set of users. They also operate under a unique business model. In light of these facts, it is not surprising that communications was a pressing issue for agricultural cooperatives. The communications issues identified by the cooperative experts fell into three major categories:
- First is the need to educate members so that they understand and are involved in decisions on retaining funds, managing equity, distributing profits and rationalizing business operations. This challenge has grown as cooperative memberships have become more diverse and geographically dispersed.
- The second challenge is the need to communicate the value of the cooperative to members and potential members. Cooperative managers and directors appreciate the unique cooperative business model but tend to do a poor job of communicating that message to others who are less familiar with it.
- The final communication challenge is describing the cooperative’s business model and value to the general public. Cooperatives are particularly concerned with reaching younger audiences who are the next generation of members and employees.
Users of a cooperative are both customers and owners. Ideally, a cooperative’s communications should cover both relationships. Most cooperatives try to communicate the important fact that they are a great firm to do business with. They are somewhat less diligent in communicating the unique value of their business structure.
Cooperatives are successfully operating in almost every sector of American industry. However, the cooperative industry has never developed a simply unified message that communicates the value package and cuts across all types of cooperatives. The local food movement has successfully used the message “Know your Farmer, Know your Food.” Agricultural cooperatives might be able to reduce their communications challenges if they had a simple unified message and if RECs, Farm Credit Banks, credit unions, telephone cooperatives and cooperative food stores were echoing the same message.