Basic Roles of Members

Farmers, shoppers, households, artists, businesses – all these groups can be the key membership groups in a cooperative enterprise. Whether a producer, consumer, purchasing, worker, or service cooperative, members are the foundation of a cooperative business. The purpose of a cooperative enterprise is member-driven, as one scholar explained, “[c]ooperatives are organized to serve member needs and are focused on generating member benefits. “[1]

Additionally, the cooperative principles inform the role of members in a cooperative, including principles of “voluntary and open membership,” “democratic member control,” “member economic participation,” and “education, training, and information.”

Often, cooperatives include only a single membership group, such as workers or farmers, but sometimes cooperatives include multiple types or “classes” of members. These cooperatives are sometimes referred to as multi-stakeholder or solidarity cooperatives.

Rod Kelsay, Executive Director Mid America Cooperative Council (MACC), talks about member engagement.
*View Engage Members Video Transcript

Members, who are also by definition the major users of a cooperative, have ownership interests and generally have control rights in their cooperative.[2] Members generally vote using a democratic system where voting control is not tied to investment in the cooperative, for example, using a one-member, one-vote system. Because they are owners of the enterprise, members have certain legal rights and responsibilities like electing directors to govern the enterprise and voting on significant business changes, like mergers, acquisitions, dissolutions, and other changes.

Learn more about the legal rights of members in Ohio and West Virginia cooperatives in Co-op Mastery’s Create Your Co-op section.

Members are also responsible for financing their cooperative through equity investments like the purchase of membership stock or preferred shares, through retained earnings from the operation of the cooperative, or through some combination of both, or other mechanisms.

The publication, “Co-op Essentials: What They Are and the Role of Members, Directors, Managers, and Employees” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides more detail on the foundational role of members in a cooperative.

Member Engagement in a Cooperative

Dr. Chris Bruynis, author “Key Success Factors for Emerging Agricultural Marketing Cooperatives,”shares the importance of board member training for the overall success of the co-op.
*View Co-op Education Video Transcript

Cooperative Principle 5, sometimes abbreviated to P5, is “Education, Training, and Information.” The principle means that “[c]ooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees, so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the public . . . about the nature and benefits of cooperation.”

P5 recognizes that cooperatives are information intensive enterprises that rely on multiple stakeholders to be well-informed for a cooperative to be successful.

One of the most meaningful opportunities for members to engage their cooperative is via the annual member meeting and the election of directors. According to a recent survey of over 500 cooperatives operating in various sectors across the United States, 22% of members of all participating cooperatives voted in the last board election of their cooperative. Over 60% of participating cooperatives reported promoting member participation in board elections and annual meetings via email (76%), newsletters (65%), mailings (63%), and social media (61%).

Outside of promoting participation in annual meetings and board elections, the most common ways that participating cooperatives reported engaging their members were social media (66%) and newsletters (59%). Additionally, over half of participating cooperatives reported using surveys (53%), community events (51%), and committees (51%) to engage members. Finally, 36% of participating cooperatives reported conducting regular surveys of members and customers to measure member satisfaction.[3]

[1] Zueli, K. & Cropp, R. (n.d.). “Cooperatives: Principles and practices in the 21st century.” UW Extension. (p. 4)

[2] Autrey, C. & Hall, R. (2009). The Law of Cooperatives. American Bar Association.

[3] Berner, C. & Schlachter, L. (2022). “Findings from the Cooperative Governance Research Initiative 2021.” (p. 48-49) University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives.