Here are some questions every co-op board member and CEO should know the answer to: What is the demographic makeup of your membership? What percentage of your members are African American? Hispanic? Or from other ethnic groups? What percentages are minors? Middle-age? Women? Senior citizens?

Do you know?

I think this information is critical to the future success of your co-op.

Now, look around and ask yourself, does the makeup of your board and staff reflect your member demographics? I believe it should.

I believe members have many reasons to choose the co-op in this circumstance, but they’re more likely to do so if they feel a sense of connection to you. Plain and simple: If your co-op reflects what your members see in their communities, they’ll be more inclined to believe that you understand their needs and have their best interests at heart.

As far as staff goes, I recommend co-op managers know the demographic makeup of their territory and try as best as they can to hire within those percentages whenever jobs come available.

Boards are more difficult because they are elected by the membership. But it can be done. We talk a lot about co-ops having a formal succession plan for CEOs and senior leaders, but co-op boards need to have succession plans as well. And that plan needs to include active recruitment of candidates that reflect the communities represented. In most cases, that will mean attracting women, minorities, and younger board members.

A recent report from a group called the Rural Power Project takes co-ops in the South to task for having boards that are not representative of their memberships. I don’t necessarily agree with their conclusions nor their methodology, but this is not the first such report on this subject, and I can assure you, it won’t be the last.

If we want our co-ops to continue to be relevant for generations to come, we must embrace and welcome diversity. Diversity will plant the seeds that will ensure we stay true to our principles and values. Every member needs to know that they are part of the co-op and are welcome to participate at the highest levels of their organization.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at aschwartz@ thecooperativeway.coop.

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