Let’s face it. The recent presidential election, no matter which side you were on, was a bruising, at times uncomfortable, exercise. But as hard as it was to go through, it was democracy in action, and that’s a good thing.

When the election was over, it got me thinking about how well cooperatives do democracy and how important it has been to our success over the years. I also started pondering how the imperative of fulfilling our cooperative principle of “Democratic Member Control” is evolving.

I use a classic definition of democracy: a form of governance in which power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected representatives under a fair and equal system. That definition varies from the legal and tax definition, but it’s a helpful and understandable reference.

Throughout our history, we’ve followed the letter of this definition—we’ve vested the power to determine the direction of our co-ops in boards of directors that are composed of members and elected by members. Co-ops that make special efforts to publicize board elections, encourage members to run, and make voting convenient and accessible take that definition a step further.

However, what I’ve seen in recent years is that following the letter of democracy may no longer be adequate.

Our memberships are changing. They’re getting more demographically diverse and savvier about what services they want. These new expectations mean we should go further to better serve and represent our members. The classic definition of democracy still stands, but now there is a spirit of democracy that goes beyond this.

The spirit of democracy takes many forms—for example, actively seeking the input and opinions of members, sharing appropriate information with them, and involving them as much as possible in setting the co-op’s course.

What I’m describing is a familiar concept: member engagement.

Engagement today means things like surveying members to understand their needs or conversing with them using communication channels they’re comfortable with, whether that’s in person, over the phone, via e-mail, or on social media.

Many co-ops are working to adopt both the letter and the spirit of democracy. Sometimes the process or the results can be frustrating. But following our natural inclinations as co-ops to serve our members can help keep us on track.

I truly believe there is a desire, particularly among young members, to engage with us. This point was driven home at a recent Thanksgiving dinner where I was speaking with the college-age nephew of a friend. I told him what I do for a living, and he was shocked: “Are there really electric companies owned by the customers and only the customers?” I said, “Yes, and there are roughly 900 of them in the country.” His reply? “Cool. How do I start one?”

It is not enough anymore to just put a sign out saying, “All are welcome.” We should go to the members and personally invite their participation. For some co-ops, this “new democracy” may be a challenge, but think about what success looks like:

  • An informed membership helping to guide the direction of the co-op
  • Members who will fight for their co-op
  • Long-term success for our co-ops while showcasing how democracy can work

The cooperative business model is in the midst of a renaissance that can help enhance and advance our democracy. The pace of this change will accelerate as we bring on the next generation of co-op leaders. By encouraging participation, and even a bit of debate, with our members, we show them how our new democracy works and where they fit in. And that’s something that will benefit us all.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm helping 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.