On democracy, and good governance, and all that

In the past few days I have exercised my member’s right to vote for board members of both Leeds Building Society and MEC, the Canadian outdoor equipment cooperative retailer (if you’re asking, I’ve been a MEC customer a number of times while visiting Canada).

Leeds Building Society offers the usual unsatisfactory British building society experience of having uncontested Board elections. MEC by contrast has a lively democracy: ten candidates for three board places. Admittedly only a small percentage of the membership tends to vote (last year 47,000 members voted out of several million), but I reckon it’s a cooperative member’s responsibility to do so… even if I do live several thousand miles from MEC’s head office.  I hope I’ve voted for candidates who will help MEC continue to thrive.

Hey there, coop members

British coops need to have a much better understanding of how coops in other countries do their member engagement and democracy,  so let me tell you about the email which came through to me yesterday with the interesting title “Hey there, voter…”

The email is from Canada’s long established Mountain Equipment Cooperative (MEC), a chain of outdoor shops across the country. It’s a pure consumer cooperative, in that it sells only to members – or in other words, if you want to buy something in their shop you have to sign up first and pay your $5 membership.  As a consequence among MEC’s several million members are some people like me who have stocked up on the odd bit of outdoor kit when we’ve been in Canada.

It’s election time for MEC, and fourteen members have put themselves forward for the four places available, a sign of a pretty healthy level of democracy. MEC being MEC, the candidates’ addresses combine information on their financial and business skills together with their outdoor credentials (“this passionately outdoorsy paddler/hiker/cycler/explorer will apply her all…”).

For the first time this year MEC’s existing Board is ‘recommending’ eight of the fourteen candidates (a change agreed by the membership last year).  As MEC explains: “the Board, with the help of an independent consultant and the Nominations Committee (which includes non-Board members) assessed each of the nominees against this year’s priority areas and MEC values.” For 2014 the Board was looking for skills in relation to the retail sector, the supply chain, and IT.

I think this is a legitimate process in cooperative Board selection, always provided that the number of ‘recommended’ candidates exceeds the number of places.  The danger otherwise is we end up with the sort of cosy club for the chaps which has been a feature of the UK building society Boardroom for so long.

Who shall I vote for?  I haven’t quite made up my mind…