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Member or Owner: Who are you?

By: Strive! Inc.

Within agricultural associations, we often struggle with defining roles and responsibilities. Our members commonly have both owner and customer interests. In some situations, they will be acting as owners and in others, they will be acting as customers. Let’s take a look at the roles and differing expectations.

Members are Owners: Members act as owners when, as a group, they select the board and change by-laws. Also, as owners, they desire to ensure prices charged for services enable the organization to grow and develop and to build equity for a rainy day. 

Members are Customers: As customers, they typically wish the lowest price for a product or service. Members act as customers when they receive services such as newsletters, reduced fees for products or services, or other benefits.

To manage this conflict between member and owner interests objectively, boards are best to deal with the members’ owner interests and empower staff to deal with members’ customer issues. Members’ interest in setting the direction of the organization is an ownership matter which is best dealt with by considering a variety of perspectives, is then the board’s responsibility. Members concerned about the fee for a service, waiting time, how to complete application forms, or how to access certain industry best practices information are acting as customers and are best served by an individual or the staff. 

Effective governing boards are able to discern the difference between an ownership concern and customer interests. Identifying the owner interests will enable board members to focus on policy and organizational direction. It will keep board members doing what the owners asked them to do – direct and protect the organization in their interests. Effective board members wear their owner hat – not their customer hat.  They focus on the big ‘what’ questions, are concerned about the owners’ perspective as a whole looking at the longer term, protecting the interests of the owners, and the impact of their policies and direction on all the members. 

Meanwhile, staff members are encouraged to deal with customer concerns and focus their energy on serving customers. They pass and direct governance issues to the board. In so doing, conflict between staff and board members is reduced since each accepts their respective areas of responsibility. The staff may serve customers effectively and fairly without fear of board interference or meddling. As the board has delegated their authority to implement policies to staff they focus on “how” to implement the board’s policies, how to serve individual customer needs, and the necessary procedures to enable efficient use of resources. 

Again, this clear understanding of roles and responsibilities reduces board member conflicts of interest, reduces board-staff clashes, and gives the board clarity and focus to “direct and protect” the organization in the owners’ interests while empowering the staff to serve customer interests.

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