A Director's Chair
by Lenore Gensburg and Jim Monsonis
We’ve been on the Board of Directors for the past three years, but will not continue for a second term. We shall be replaced at the April membership meeting. And as “departing” Board members, we wanted to use the opportunity of writing one last Director’s Chair column to reflect on the past three years — the good parts and the parts that could be better. To start with the good parts: It was truly terrific to work with such wonderful people as we encountered on the Board and the Collective Management Team (CMT). Our Board president Lynne Lekakis kept things moving, turned the Board into a working group and always interjected her wonderful sense of humor into the mix. There were other gifted people with terrific ideas that made one rethink a position — “Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that.” The Board, and CMT when we had meetings with them, were always respectful of differing opinions and worked toward consensus. Many good things have happened in these years and we are honored to have been part of the process.
As we look back, we also learned some things about being on the Board and about the Coop. The most surprising part was how long it took to understand many of the issues facing the Coop and the history (how we got to where we are today). Lenore had been around the Coop for a long time and understood much about it, but Jim in particular feels that he was pretty much useless the first year of his term. We think, therefore, that experience with the Coop is a prime consideration when choosing new Board members, and also that the incoming Board needs to give serious attention to how to bring newcomers up to speed. We also did not anticipate how much time being a responsible Board member takes, and this is one of the bad parts. For both of us, the worst part of our experience was not being able to spend the amount of time needed to really do a good job, and feeling guilty about that. Some members of the Board set a high standard for energy and commitment that we were not able to meet.
This leads us, then, to pinpoint what in our experience is the biggest problem the Coop as an organization has. We have great staff, led by the CMT, and product selection. Our good financial condition has allowed us to do well by the staff in working conditions and benefits. And we have a really great member labor situation, which we understand may be the most participatory in the entire country, with more people sharing the labor at HWFC than at any other coop. But one of the reasons the Board members put such long hours in is that the committee system of running the Coop, as it presently is constituted, doesn’t work well. Few members really do much on committees (with some major exceptions: you know who you are!) and the committees which do function become primarily staffed by Board members and employees.
We say this not to let ourselves off the hook by pointing at someone else. We have been guilty of not doing the committee work we should have. But the objective fact is that the present system does have problems. What can be done? Fully functioning committees with lots of people sharing the load would ease the burden of the few that do this much needed work. Many hands really do make work lighter. And so we’d like to make a suggestion. Instead of “general purpose” committees such as membership, communications or personnel, maybe we could set up “ad hoc” committees to work on specific, time-defined projects. For example, a member might make a commitment to work on the product manual; or a project that would beef up the communications between members doing different work at the Coop. Or someone could help the buyers by tracing down a new source of supply. Does the warehouse need reorganizing? How about our archives? When the project is specific and time-limited, volunteers may be more forthcoming. What we would need is a small steering group — a staff member, the Board liaison, one or two experienced “old hands” — and Nate’s marvelous memory and database of what member has what kind of skill and/or interest. And we could go from there.Think about it. For starters, we’re available for specific projects. Now that we’re off the Board, we have some time.…