Sunday, March 24, 2013

Unclear on the Concept

I was recently visiting a long-time friend who's had a long-term association with a student cooperative system. In the course of catching up, she shared with me the following cautionary tale about power and size in a cooperative setting.

The Background
1. Not surprisingly, the people living in student co-ops are overwhelmingly students (duh). We're mostly talking about young men and women 18-22 years old and it's generally their first taste of cooperative living—which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's a terrific, relatively low risk entrée to the world of community, and many student co-opers graduate to become serious shoppers for intentional community later in life. That's the good news.

On the other hand, many young people, are motivated to join co-ops more by the prospect of cheap rent than the lure of group living. What's more, they're often focused more on academics (or other distractions available in college town culture) than on what's happening in the house, the end result of which is a high degree of apathy about governance.

2. Student co-ops have a fundamentally hard time with culture transfer. They have high turnover built into their reality (as students tend to move on to pursue careers once they finish school). Thus, hard-earned progress made one year in developing a cohesive group with social savvy and clear agreements is at considerable risk of erosion the next year based on member retention and the willingness of returning members to screen new prospects for a good fit and then applying themselves to integrating the newcomers into the house culture. While I don't suppose student co-ops are any worse at this than other intentional community—few communities are very good at this—the price here is higher because the turnover is higher. In short, there is weak institutional memory. 

3. For any community to gel—not just student co-ops—members need to understand that you don't successfully create cooperative culture by merely reading a book about it or passing an agreement mandating cooperation. It requires personal work to understand and shift the competitive and adversarial lenses through which we've been thoroughly conditioned to see the world. 

4.  In almost all cooperative groups—students co-ops being no exception—there is rarely clarity about: a) what kind of leadership is wanted from members; and b) how to create a culture that selects leaders wisely and balances thoughtful evaluation with genuine appreciation.

The Specifics
5. The co-op system in question was especially large, with many houses. Thus, scale was an additional factor, making it that much harder for each individual member to grasp the whole, and feel well connected with it. Another way of putting this is that it was relatively easy to slip into internal us/them dynamics. 

Because of size, the system relied on a representative democracy, whereby each house selected reps, who in turn comprised the governing Board of the system. Further, the Board was so big that it used Roberts Rules of Order instead of consensus, which makes the shift to cooperative culture (point #2 above) that much more difficult.

6. To streamline operations the system relies on an Executive Director (ED), who is hired by the Board. This is a full-time paid position and the person in this role typically lasts much longer than anyone on the Board. In addition there are a handful of other paid staff who oversee day-to-day operations of key system functions. These positions are typically not filled by students though it's common to fill them with system alumni.

7. To streamline governance, the Board selects a Steering Committee. It is their task to draft plenary agendas, oversee committees, and generally be the first set of eyes looking after the health and well-being of the system.

8. Taking into account Point #1 (diffusion among members about why they joined the co-op and where they focus their attention) and Point #4 (how leadership can be viewed as more of a burden than an opportunity), it is relatively common that houses are scrambling to find people willing to serve as reps, and the Board is often happy simply to not have to beat the bushes to fill slots.

9. Recently the ED successfully pitched to the Board the idea of hiring a consulting firm to review organizational structure and make recommendations about how to improve efficiency and cohesion. While I don't have any problem with those objectives and I have no personal knowledge about the firm selected, I found it noteworthy that: a) the compensation for this contract was six figures; and b) the company selected had nonprofit experience (good), but no experience with cooperatives (no so good).

10. Even though the system was flush with money (they were, after all, well enough off to be able to afford to hire the consulting firm), the Board—at the ED's urging and with the Steering Committee's backing—decided to squeeze the long-term staff when it came time to renegotiate their labor contract. With no warning, the Board low-balled the staff with an initial offer that cut benefits, embraced a policy of replacing outgoing full-time positions with part-time people that wouldn't be offered benefits, and reduced wages. As far as anyone could tell, this approach was taken not in response to a tight budget or poor staff performance; it was done because the ED and Steering Committee thought they could get away with it, and could save money for other uses. Yikes!

11. Bad as that was, it was worse they way they went about it. The Steering Committee hired a legal team noted for union busting (more prima facie evidence of the system not being under financial strain), met continually in executive session to restrict Board access to information about their negotiating position and strategy, denied permission for the staff to present their position to the Board, spread false rumors about the legality of the prior contract, and made wild allegations about the staff trying to bankrupt the co-op. In short it was Haymarket ugly.

While the Machiavellian ED was eventually forced out and the sleeping Board is currently waking up to what has been done in their name, this is a sobering tale about the risks of largeness (think of it as a counterbalance to economies of scale) and the need for vigilance and engagement as an appropriate check and balance on the use of power and the healthy distribution of authority.

The Lessons
12. Houses would benefit from developing a clearer idea about what characteristics are desirable in their reps before they're selected, both so that there can be more discernment about how to assess candidates and how to evaluate their performance after they're in harness.

13. Similarly, the Board would be well advised to develop characteristics wanted from members of the Steering Committee and from their ED for the same reasons. Note that this is different from a job description and a delineation of duties and authority (though that is needed as well).

14. The houses need to exercise oversight of their reps, expecting a flow of information and making sure members voices are heard on the issues that reps grapple with. In the same way, the Board needs to be up to speed about what the Steering Committee and ED are doing. An apathetic membership, or passive Board, leads to mischief and courts the risk of mission drift.
The biggest ouch in this story is that the ED was able to create a viable, aligned coalition with the Steering Committee to drive a wedge between the students and the long-term staff, pitting one against the other. How can it possibly be OK for the leadership of a cooperative to embrace the goal of undermining the long-term security of staff and then rubbing salt in the wound by engaging in such demonstrably uncooperative tactics? If you're behavior is not congruent with your core beliefs, what the hell do you stand for? 

I'm talking about negotiating in good faith, supporting fair wages, being committed to the diffusion of power (rather than its concentration), and commitment to information flow and transparency. These are co-op fundamentals, not open-to-interpretation bargaining chips.

While the goals and tactics advanced by the ED and supported by the Steering Committee may be acceptable—even laudable—in the corporate world, they are anathema in cooperative culture. The ultimate question here is what this particular cooperative system will take away from this embarrassment. Will they get more committed to culture change and manifest broader based involvement in governance, or will they just get outrage, take down the current crop of leaders and then go back to business as usual?

We'll see.

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