Helpful Partners: Engaging Members & Local Producers/Businesses

By SaraBeth Drybread of Columbus Food Co-op


The staff at FCI knows that the task of opening a new retail food co-op requires many partners. The sheer volume of things to do can sometimes overwhelm even the best startup team. We want to share this story of using community partners to build success, and how startups might benefit from Helpful Partners.

Columbus Food Co-op in Columbus, Indiana knows that the vendors and providers they wish to feature in the store can be their best helpers in promoting the co-op. Presently they are in the implementation stage, they have worked with many producers to bring more value to owner-members even before the store opens. While building excitement for the co-op, they are growing strong relationships with these wonderful partners. SaraBeth Drybread shares two great examples with us and shows how it is a win-win for all parties. Our thanks to SaraBeth and Columbus Food Co-op for sharing their own Helpful Partners with us. For more information about Columbus Food Co-op, email  Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at

“Before the Store Perks”

benefits-posterRelationships, relationships, relationships! That’s the co-op difference, right? As a startup, it’s important to keep owner-members engaged and feel like they’re benefiting from the time they join your co-op, especially since the process will be long. The co-op’s relationship with local producers and businesses is also key to growth and establishing yourself as an ally.

Our co-op offered “Before the Store Perks” at our farmer’s market. We reached out to local vendors (many of whom were owner-members) and asked them to offer a benefit to owners at the market.

Here are some examples:

  • Nightfall Farm: 10% off pastured chicken
  • Soapy Soap Co.: $2 off essential oils
  • Indiana Craft Jerky: $2 off bag of jerky
  • Fleming Family Beef: 10% off purchase

soapysoapsocialmediaThe co-op provided the following:

  • Poster for participating vendor to display at the farmer’s market
  • Owner-member Benefits Cards
  • Link to vendor on social media, newsletters, website
  • Weekly highlights of participating vendors & benefits
  • Mentions on bi-weekly radio morning show where we have a spot

The goal was to show our support and introduce new customers to these local vendors and increase our membership because everyone loves to get a discount!

We had owner-members pick up benefits card our booth which was a great way to engage with them and make sure they were up-to-date on our progress. Are you reading the newsletter? Do you follow us on Facebook? Have any questions?

Sponsor Buy Local Week

Another way to build relationships with local businesses is to sponsor a Buy Local Week (BLW), much like Small Business Saturday. This was one of our earliest initiatives and helped connect us with like-minded business leaders. We got a few fellow sponsors (bank, insurance company, community center) and participating businesses offered a discount to customers and the co-op did the rest.

The co-op:

  • Created index-sized cards with participating business logos on the back
  • Put Buy Local Week window decals in participating businesses
  • Created posters with info and list of businesses and placed all around town
  • Bought an add in the newspaper
  • Heavily publicized on social media, newsletters, website

buylocalweekcardThe BLW index cards were passed out at the Farmer’s Market, a couple of restaurants put them in with people’s checks, and we put stacks in some of the businesses. People would take a card during BLW to a participating business for the incentive and get the logo initialed on the back. At the end of the week we had a big ice-cream social and gave away door prizes to people who participated and turned in their cards.

This was open to everyone, not just owner-members. All the promotional materials had the co-op logo, website, and social media contacts on them, so it was a great way to build awareness.

Keep reaching out to local growers/producers and businesses.

They are your greatest ambassadors! Growers who have small stores and/or participate in the Farmer’s Market might see the co-op as competition instead of growth potential as another outlet for their goods. This is where education and impact stories from existing co-ops is crucial. Check out the Impact Report from Common Ground Food Co-op, or the Annual Reports from River Valley Market and communicate that type of local sales growth to your membership and potential vendors. One of our market vendors had their best week ever when they offered the discount to owner-members!

Now is the time to start lasting relationships. Do what you can to build your relationships with local growers because they’re your suppliers, customers, investors, and champions for owner growth. Stronger. Together.

FCI: Why We Like This: This type of cooperative community building can excite vendors and show them that owner-members are serious about supporting local producers. It also gives owners a tangible benefit of joining, and joining early—before the store opens. A new retail food co-op’s success can hinge on this type of partnership between co-op, members, and producers. 


Capital Campaigns: One Co-op Opts for Direct Public Offering, part 2

By Philip Trevvett, of Urban Greens Food Co-op in Rhode Island
Read Part 1 of this series HERE, and check out the following Q & A here.
Food Co-op Initiative staff understands that a capital campaign can be one of the most stressful yet rewarding activities a startup undertakes. We offer many resources for startups planning a campaign, but in the last few years we have seen increased interest in the direct public offering (DPO) of shares. Our website and webinars are full of great info on running a successful owner-loan based capital campaign. Any type of capital campaign will find useful resources in our Capital Campaign Workbook. This post gives us a glimpse into a successful DPO by a startup co-op.
Urban Greens Food Co-op in Providence, Rhode Island is in the implementation stage, with groundbreaking for their co-op in Fall 2016. The group has been working through many community-based efforts to bring a retail food co-op to their community, but chose to reach out to a larger audience to support their capital campaign. Philip Trevvett has been on of the leaders of this effort, and welcomes questions via Our thanks for Philip and Urban Greens for sharing their story.

Part 2:

Lessons Learned:

1) Local knowledge has value. This was true in many areas:

  • We decided not to hire externally for a coordinator position: In planning and prioritizing call lists, personal emails, etc., my knowledge of our member list was incredibly helpful. It would have taken more hours to transfer that knowledge to someone else, and made our call list organization less efficient. This of course was possible because of my time availability, but the key point: whoever is most familiar with membership has a lot to offer in planning call lists. All board members also reviewed our full list of members and noted members they knew, connections and context.
  • We choose to hire a local fundraising consultant on a limited basis. While donation-based capital campaigns differ from investment-based ones in some ways, we gave our consultant a clear outline of our plan, and were able to benefit significantly from her local knowledge. As we reported on various conversations and connections, she’d give us background on members with potential capacity that we were unaware of, or general techniques and strategies to help build stronger relationships with specific supporters.
  • Customizing specific aspects of our messaging. Key lesson here: know your members. as well as your capacity. In some ways our messaging went against the standard, advised messaging rules. We did not emphasize that we needed to reach our full goal by our target date in order to open. In fact we emphasized that, above our lower threshold of 100k, we would be able to move forward with the building by taking on more debt if needed. This was the right decision for us because of our particular history. Urban Greens has been on a long startup path. At one point we had to opt out of an earlier publicized site at a fairly late stage, then had several more years working towards our current site. It was critical to several investors that they know the co-op was ‘really happening’ this time. Multiple investors felt much more comfortable knowing that the store was definitely moving forward, and that our planning was solid even if we did not reach the full target by the end of June. 

2) Going Digital & “Remote.”  More than most, our campaign was almost entirely remote, via emails and phone calls. Because we had an e-portal set up through which investors could complete the offering agreement, there was often no need to meet people in person. We always offered in person meetings,  but a high percentage of investors were happy to have a phone call and then complete the online form. Because we were registered publicly, and able to promote directly on our facebook page, this also meant a number of individuals invested without having conversations at all. (While this wasn’t a large proportion of our raise, it did speak to the impact a strong social media campaign could have.)

3) Open communication among team members is key. There is a lot of communication happening during a capital campaign. We were strong in some aspects but weak in others.

One of our biggest challenges was keeping board members on task, especially those less immediately involved in the campaign. In both the quiet and public campaign, we had trouble getting several board members to follow through on their commitment to having pitch conversations. We had predicted significant investment from several sources where direct connections existed, but in the end were only able to reach out to them through cold calling. In some cases this made little impact, and we still received investments. In other instances, this likely led to less or no investment. Key points:

  • It is critical that members of the board are fully aware of, and “buy in” to, the work that needs to be done for the capital campaign.
  • The coordinator needs to be able to focus on efficiently managing the entire campaign. Board members should be the top supporters of the coordinator, and help in every way possible. Understanding their own accountability for the campaign outcome is important.
  • Big picture: if the coordinator find it is a challenge to get board members to actively participate, it risks making the larger goal (and the coordinator’s job) feel impossible.

Keeping morale up among callers was also difficult, but we did better on this aspect. Many evenings most callers would get no commitments, and only reach a handful of people. Figuring out how to keep callers engaged and feeling good is key. Some campaigns have the capacity to focus on the callers with the best success rates. We did not. We had a limited set of callers, and needed everyone. It was imperative to emphasize how important everyone was no matter the results they were seeing. Many messages left would result in follow up email exchanges with me as the coordinator, and to eventual investments. Callers needed to understand that just because they didn’t reach someone, that did not mean the call was pointless.

4) Create a strategy for accessing the funds before you start. There seem to be multiple strategies here: locking funds until full financing is reached, allowing a percentage to be used, or designating a lower minimum “raise threshold.” We designated a minimum threshold of 100k. We had to justify it in our Offering Memorandum, but this put us in the comfortable position of knowing that—even if we did not raise the entire amount by July—we would have a significantly larger budget towards raising additional capital if needed.

5) People invest for many different reasons, and understanding those various reasons and when to emphasize each, will strengthen your pitch.

This means listening to, and learning from investors, or investors from other co-ops, to hear what they found important. We also made sure all callers were sharing what investors found compelling.

6) Prepare investors for the campaign well before launch. The capital campaign has been part of our plan for several years, and we have been open about that with members. That meant that many members were ready to listen, and ready to invest.

Next Steps:


Members celebrate the Urban Greens future site.

Our goal is to not run a second phase of public campaigning, and phone-banking numbers either this fall or next spring.

The avenues we are currently focused on:

  • Quiet’ presentations, and house parties, organized by a few current investors. (The public offering makes it very easy for us to talk directly about the campaign in these presentations, even if not everyone is a member.)
  • Foundation/institution support–Social impact investing as a form of mission based endowment investment. Foundations are increasingly looking into this, and we are currently in the review process towards 1 such investment large. What is small for an endowment can be huge for a co-op
  • Small/likeminded business support: We plan to reach out to numerous independent businesses in the neighborhood that will benefit from the customers that the co-op brings to the area.

Overall, we’ve been extremely happy with our capital raise to date, and look forward to continuing our raise quietly this fall.  We worked hard to use guidelines and strategies outlined by the Capital Campaign Toolbox, while also trusting our local knowledge of where slight adjustments would benefit us. The biggest lessons for us from this campaign:

  • It’s important to trust the plan, but also trust your knowledge about when the plan needs modifications.
  • Open communication is important.
  • The better you know your members, the better you will do.
  • Designing the investment structure for your needs can have a huge impact on your success.

Running a Capital Campaign as a startup is one of the hardest things a startup has to do.  You won’t know how it will go until you’re in it. It feels like a big leap of faith to plan on raising large amounts of capital like this, but we found what many other co-ops have as well: that it can work, and have a huge impact.  

(We know you will have questions as you read this post!  Please share them below and we will get a follow-up post out soon to answer as many as we can.)

FCI: Why we like this:  Clearly Urban Greens put a good deal of thought and research into this process.  A DPO may not be right for all co-ops, but in this case it really increased the range of available investors for the startup. Consult your legal and accounting advisors to ensure compliance with your own state laws. We encourage you to talk with your consulting team as well, and to reach out to other co-ops who have taken this step.

Capital Campaigns: One Co-op Opts for Direct Public Offering, part 1

By Philip Trevvett, of Urban Greens Food Co-op in Rhode Island
Food Co-op Initiative staff understands that a capital campaign can be one of the most stressful yet rewarding activities a startup undertakes. We offer many resources for startups planning a campaign, but in the last few years we have seen increased interest in the direct public offering (DPO) of shares. Our website and webinars are full of great info on running a successful owner-loan based capital campaign. Any type of capital campaign will find useful resources in our Capital Campaign Workbook. This post gives us a glimpse into a successful DPO by a startup co-op.
Urban Greens Food Co-op in Providence, Rhode Island is in the implementation stage, with groundbreaking for their co-op in Fall 2016. The group has been working through many community-based efforts to bring a retail food co-op to their community, but chose to reach out to a larger audience to support their capital campaign. Philip Trevvett has been on of the leaders of this effort, and welcomes questions via Our thanks for Philip and Urban Greens for sharing their story.

Urban Greens closed out our initial capital campaign at the beginning of July. We are excited to share our process, results, lessons learned ,and next steps with other start-ups. Running our campaign on a tight budget, and with very tight volunteer support, we were able to have a really successful campaign,. Now we are in great shape to reach our full goal through additional quiet conversations this fall.

Planning Our Campaign:

As we embarked on our community capital campaign, we had a few key decisions to make. First, we decided to register our campaign as a direct public offering (DPO), meaning that it was a registered security, where anyone in the state could invest, rather than a more traditional startup Capital Campaign, in which the co-op can only promote to and receive funds from members. Running our campaign as a public offering allowed us to do a couple of things that we felt were key to us, in our circumstance:

Our capital campaign would not be limited to members:as a DPO  we could reach out to anyone in the state of Rhode Island, where we were registered. This was important because our store’s trade area is notably mixed income, and a major part of our mission is to bring a grocery store to an area currently lacking food access–many of our members are able to afford member-ownership, and future shopping in the store, but do not necessarily have the means to invest in a capital campaign. By registering publicly we could ‘pitch’ folks who may not be potential owners or customers, but who may be motivated to support the project and its impact on food access and local food infrastructure, and excited about the opportunity for hyper-local “impact investing.”

Registering publicly also meant we could publically advertise the campaign. This allowed us to spread the word more broadly and through a variety of channels (both to non-members, and to members who may not regularly read our newsletters or follow us on social media!).

urban-greens-food-co-op-site-renderingNext, we decided to structure the investment as preferred shares, a non-voting form of stock, as opposed to loans. We chose to go with preferred shares for two reasons:

  • This lowers our total debt. (Even though member loans may be considered subordinated debt, they are still generally listed as debt, and having less total debt helped our overall financial projections.)
  • Whereas with loans, a part of the principal would generally have to be paid off each year, the preferred shares are structured for us pay out only interest until the shares are redeemable (after year seven). This significantly lessens our expenses in early years.


For our implementation plan, we essentially followed the format laid out in Ben Sandell’s Capital Campaign Plan (see the Capital Campaign Workbook) with only a few differences as noted. Our basic plan was as follows:

Begin with a Quiet Campaign in May 2016Quiet Campaign Goal: 100k

  • Reaching out via emails, phone calls, and direct conversations with 30 long-time and “inner-circle” member-owners, and past/present board members.

Launch publicly at end of May, with a public goal of 600k. (Internally, assumed a high probability that we would need a second public phase to reach 600k)

  • Kick off public campaign with a written letter to all member-owners.
  • Advertise on public radio throughout the public campaign
  • Pitch and promote campaign heavily through our eblasts (not just to members, but full email list of anyone interested in Urban Greens)
  • Robust public social media campaign.
  • Phone-calling to every member-owner, on Monday– Thursday & Sunday schedule, leaving two messages when no one was reached, and one direct follow up email.

Staffing/Support: We had a Community Investment Campaign Planning Committee, which met regularly through April and May. After interviewing candidates for a campaign coordinator position, we decided against hiring one. Our plan was to used the money saved on a local fundraising consultant who could do both advising and coordination. In actuality, one board member (me) took on the coordinator role.

The local fundraising consultant support served us in an advisory role.

Six callers participated in calling members in June: three callers committed to two nights per week, and two callers committed to three or four nights per week. As our main caller, I called four or five nights per week. While being the coordinator and main caller was challenging and demanding, it helped streamline communication channels and organization immensely.

Taking pledges and payments: We also paid for a digital online portal for investment agreements, including digital signatures. This significantly lessened the need for in-person meetings with already committed investors, or in depth follow-up to make sure papers were signed.

Capital Campaign Result:

In May and June, we raised $338,500.00  in investments, from 84 investors. Since then we have paused, while planning for this fall, but still accepted a few investments, so that we are currently just over 350k, from 88 investors.

This has put us in a very strong position moving forward. We hope to complete the campaign this fall, but do have the option to complete any time before April 11 (last date of our public offering). While construction of the store will start late 2016, our development team is paying for construction, so outside of bringing on a GM, our major expenses will all come later next year.

To be continued: In part two of this post, Phillip shares the lessons learned, and next steps. You will find out more about the functional details, and hear why, in Philip’s words, “It feels like a big leap of faith to plan on raising large amounts of capital like this, but we found what many other co-ops have as well: that it can work, and have a huge impact. Read Capital Campaigns: One Co-op Opts for Direct Public Offering, part 2 and also the follow-up Q & A post..

Great Events: Hondo Co-op Market’s First Event

By Adrianna Young from Hondo, Texas.

The staff at FCI loves hearing about the great events that startup co-ops offer. They build membership, teach people about co-ops, and bring the communities together over food, and local food systems. FCI wants to share some of these with you in our blog stories on Great Events.
Hondo Co-op Market in Texas is in Stage 1 development stage, and Adrianna Young is a driving force behind getting this startup launched. Community meetings have moved them forward towards incorporation. They are working hard to show their community—a blend of small town surrounded by farms and ranches—to understand what a co-op is, and why Hondo needs one. Adrianna welcomes questions at, and we are glad she is willing to share this first tabling experience with others.

Hello from Hondo, is a rural community in south central Texas with a population of about 9,000 residents.  Rich with agricultural resources, farmers and local producers, several of our local farmers provide produce for our two large grocers in town, H.E.B and Walmart. Many of Hondo residents share the common vision that Hondo is an ideal place for a retail food cooperative.  We have been inspired by the growing interest in the co-op and the flourishing attendance at each monthly meeting.

We started formally organizing in Spring 2016. Our first outreach event was 4th of July in ‘God’s Country’, the local nickname for Hondo.  We chose the annual Independence Day celebration because we felt prepared to start outreach, and the event is a manageable size. As a fledgling startup we had limited workers, but we felt this would be a good first event for us. Committing to the day forced us to get more of our early organizing work done.  We needed to table, but first we needed to clarify our mission.

Two weeks beforehand we held a meeting to create our vision statement. We broke into small groups with a list of questions to discuss and answer.  After about twenty minutes we read everyone’s ideas and created one vision statement. This would ensure we were all on the same page and could share the same information with our prospective members at our outreach event.

Vision statement:

Hondo Co-op Market is a member-owned, locally-focused consumer co-op serving the surrounding Medina community. Hondo Co-op Market provides access to local produce, local services, high quality products at the best possible price and a community space for cooking and wellness classes. Hondo Co-op Market furnishes a central vending location for local producers.

IMG_5030Our goal for the event was to promote the idea of having a retail food co-op in Hondo and to poll interest from individuals that shared the same vision. We also wanted to share food items made with local ingredients. Another intention was to connect with local businesses and local producers and get their feelings and opinion on a food cooperative in Hondo. Our main tool for reaching out has been social media and email.

Preparation for the event was easy and not too expensive. Our local print shop created our banner. ($50) A friend picked it up for me and paid for it, her donation for the event. I purchased a 12 by 12 foot canopy, and attached our banner. Two main tables served for sign-up sheets and informational materials. I created a nice informational flyer to hand out.A homemade soap display promoting support for a local family business. We sold patty pan squash muffins and zucchini bread muffins for $.50-1.00, but we only sold a few. Next time, we will have our treat tables closer to the front of the canopy.

image2We decided that we would have free art for children—vegetable coloring sheets, bubble wrap art, jewelry making and simple chicken origami activity. The kiddos and families had a blast! (I researched art ideas and purchased the supplies; we had two supporters give $90 collectively to help with material costs). I painted the signs for each art activity and set up three tables for each activity.The tables stayed busy throughout the evening. We stayed pretty busy helping the kiddos with their projects. We had six co-op supporters helping at our booth, some in short shifts and some until cleanup at 11:00 p.m.  

This event was a success. Next time, fewer art projects, and more focus on local food and co-op. The art projects became too involved and seemed to take away quality chatting time with prospective members. In the future perhaps an easy coloring page, local food samples, and more local items on display.

Our volunteers were awesome and were confident in Hondo Co-op Market’s vision.They were all very comfortable sharing the benefits of a food co-op in Hondo. For our next event, it might be helpful to have volunteers outside of the canopy greeting supporters.  Prep hours for the event ran about 4-6 hours for a small group of volunteers doing research, printing flyers, painting signs, picking up t-shirts from printer. Research art ideas, travel time to San Antonio for materials (35 miles from Hondo).

Advice I can give to another Stage 1 having their first event?  Colorful banner, matching t-shirts, a vision statement to communicate to prospective members, meet before your event to plan activities, perhaps create a shift schedule for volunteers, be sure of your focus for the day. I feel we focused on the art projects too much. Bring lots of water to drink and snacks. Have supplies like duct tape, Sharpies, extra poster boards, pens, zip ties for fastening items to your canopy, and light up your canopy!  It draws attention. Play music, smile and most of all have fun!

Our next outreach event will be in October at the Camo 5K Run. We are also in the planning stages for Hondo Co-op Market’s Local Taste event. We learned a lot this round, and are really looking forward to doing more outreach and building excitement for our future co-op.

FCI: Why We Like This:  Getting the word out that you are planning for a co-op, and talking to community members about what a co-op can mean to your community, is a critical first step for every startup. Jumping in to advocate while you are still learning the co-op ropes may seem scary, but it can create awesome community involvement. Plan continued public events as the behind the scenes work of organizing ramps up, and move towards being able to start your member/owner drive.

5 Reasons Your Domain Should Be .coop from the beginning

Thomas Bowen loves startup co-ops. True, he loves all co-ops, but the energy and enthusiasm of startup groups brings a big smile to his face.

Thomas is the director of member relations for National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA, and wants to see every new retail food co-op succeed as part of the greater cooperative community. Contact him at to share your story, and see how a .coop domain makes sense for your future co-op.

In his words, here are 5 reasons your co-op should be using a .coop domain:

In the beginning . . . your co-op should be a .coop because:

5 reasons1—There are coops. There are also co-ops. Coops are for chickens. Co-ops are for members. Imagine the conversation and educational opportunities you have when giving people your website or email address. Principle 5 of the 7 cooperative principles is about education and information. Inform people who you are and what your store will be with your .coop domain. Tell them how different you are from the other places that may sell similar products. domains are unique. They are ONLY available to verified cooperative businesses. Cooperatives are unique businesses–why be lumped into all the coms, nets and orgs of the world. Show your pride and uniqueness! You work hard to show your difference–flaunt it. Plus, the process of verification shows trust and value. You can become a trusted resource for members. You know that group that sells similar products? They can’t have a .coop domain and how many consumers trust them?

3—With your .coop, you get a free gift. They ran out of toasters, so instead you get use of the Cooperative Marque–a unique identifier that is a trust mark for you members and customers. This marque is used exclusively by cooperative business around the world. Yes, your “little co-op” now has international appeal and is in good company. That other place . . . no Marque for you! But wait, there’s more. Act now and you can get your first year of a .coop domain

4—Sure, it is a little bit more expensive than the other domain alternatives–but this is about your brand and what makes you different from XYZ Grocer. It is a marketing expense. Ask yourself how much marketing you will get for the cost of a .coop domain? (I’ll tell you, not much.) Then what kind of marketing do you want for the cost of another domain type? (I’ll tell you, not much.)

5—If you are thinking you will add the .coop when you open the cooperative, we will say sure, you can do that–but why? Why go about changing your marketing material ($)? Why go about retraining the staff and members? Why worry about forwarding and redirecting emails and web pages and hope that it works when you change? Have no fear, already have your “other domain” (no judgment from me–none)? We can help make redirecting your .com, .org. or .net. This could be one of the easiest decisions you have to make in starting a cooperative, well, except having FCI help you with the startup process.

Why FCI likes this: It is easy for startup groups to think of themselves as volunteer or non-profit type organizations that are struggling to start a cooperative grocery store. But, just as with any startup business in any field, you are starting a real business! You are starting a retail grocery store that, in a few years, could easily be handing a sales volume of over a million dollars. You do not want your members and community come to think of you as that little .org group that wants a co-op. You want them to believe in the goal—a new retail food co-op in your community that welcomes everyone to shop. Every effort you make to show that you are serious about your goal can help move you ahead. Thomas makes a great point with number five—it is expensive to change all your marketing and such later. (Also, when you are ready to hire a general manager, NCBA is the best place to post your job listing and reach a great set of talent.)