Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sweat Equity and Local Food Systems

Since its beginning, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative has been a triumph of sweat equity.  At one point a couple of years ago, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation regarding the value of the sweat equity to the coop -- that is to say, what would it cost the coop to pay market wages for the labor (including management) donated to the coop.  At the time, that figure was in excess of $200,000.  To put this in perspective, customer and producer fees, presently set at 10% for customers and 10% for producers, would have to increase to about 18% each to replace sweat equity with paid staff.  The coop would then be operating on a margin of 36%, which is typical of regular grocery coops.

The sweat equity investments of our members made our success possible to date.

The growth pattern over the last seven years or so has been characterized by periods of rapid growth, followed by plateaus.  The longest plateau was the most recent, lasting for all of 2009, which saw an increase in producer sales of 7% over 2008, our lowest growth rate to date.  But in 2010, we are moving into another major growth spurt.  Producer sales for the first quarter were up 18% over the first quarter of 2009, and May 2010 was up 25% over May 2009. 

Once again, our management team is running to keep up.

Without the help of the membership, it will be hard for the coop management to keep up with the growth.  I would not be surprised if my the end of the year we are doing $100,000 in monthly producer sales, which will mean that we will finally cross the one million in annual sales goal post sometime in the upcoming year or so. 

If we are going to keep the sweat equity model, then there must be a renewed commitment of the membership to sweat equity.  While we don't have a volunteer requirement per se, we have a culture of volunteerism.  As a cooperative, all members are responsible for the success of the cooperative, and thus even though I am no longer on the management team, I want to send out this call to encourage members to contact our management team at gom@oklahomafood.coop and see what you can do to help.

Right now our existing volunteers are stretched to the limit.  Every month we are expecting more from the same group of people.  That is not sustainable, nor is it economically viable.  I am not asking anyone to quit their day job to help with the coop, but I am asking everyone to make a renewed commitment to the sweat equity model that has made us so successful.
  • Show up early, or stay late, to help set-up your pick-up site or take it down afterwards.  Email your site manager before the delivery day to let him or her know you are available to help.
  • Consider volunteering for a back office job, by contacting gom@oklahomafood.coop .
  • Once or twice a year, take a vacation day and volunteer for delivery day.  Come early and stay late.
  • Serve on a coop committee.
  • Tip the volunteers by donating a dollar or two to the Volunteer Appreciation fund that feeds our delivery day volunteers.
Yes its work, and that includes some manual labor, but it is important work, it is necessary work, and the rewards of satisfaction are great.  You'll know that you are doing your part to make sure the cooperative becomes sustainable and economically viable, and that is a gift you can send to future generations that will follow us whose cost cannot be counted.

1 comment:

  1. Bob-
    I work at/belong to a Co-op in NM. We have some member volunteer work but mostly it is "side work" - stuffing envelopes, etc. Our BOD is afraid of liability issues regarding actually putting the members to "work." Could you describe what you mean by "sweat equity" in your co-op, and how you deal with any liability issues?

    Adam King