Published May 2, 2017 by Food Co-op Initiative

By Kelly Matthews of Oshkosh Food Co-op

Oshkosh Food Co-op logo




Oshkosh is a city of about 66,000 people located in west central Wisconsin. In 2012, a group there started dreaming of their very own co-op, and the learning process began. Oshkosh Food Co-op incorporated 16 months later, and the challenge of education the community about co-ops, and growing ownership, began. As all startups learn, the first members may hop on board early, but many potential owners take a “wait and see” approach. Moving these people to act and join today is an important skill for all co-op organizers to acquire.

Kelly Matthews came on board early as a volunteer, but now serves as the board chair. She can tell you that the path to opening a co-op is not always a straight one, but there are steps and decisions that can really move things ahead. It required a serious shift in how the Oshkosh organizers presented goals and stages to the community to get the membership growing, and help move the co-op forward. 

In January 2015, we had a major shift in our thinking about our co-op’s progress. When I first came on the steering committee, our brochures confidently had dates attached to when major milestones would happen. Think “Pro Forma, June 2013” and “Location, December 2013” and the like. We very quickly found ourselves with outdated materials and a sagging sense of progress. In our early optimism of predicting progress, we inadvertently ignored a key truth in co-op organizing: you can only go as quickly as your community goes.

With the help of some smart strategic planning with Jacqueline Hannah of Food Co-op Initiative, we reimagined our progress and linked it to specific membership numbers. When we have 400 members, we will start our Pro Forma work. When we have 750 members, we will secure our location. Linking membership milestones to our tasks in organizing transformed our purpose and gave immediate clarity to our recruitment efforts.

Oshkosh TImeline

When we asked someone to become a member, we could tie their membership to the goals of the co-op. We could also help them see how their individual membership would get us one step closer to the next task that needed to be done.

When people had questions about how we reached our membership milestones on our timeline, it gave us a chance to explain due diligence. We wanted people to know how seriously the board was taking the work needed to open the co-op, and open it in such a way that dramatically increased the chances of it staying open for decades to come. We were able to tie these tasks to the development model used by FCI and to talk about how many other co-ops opened successfully using timelines and tasks like these.

Internally, the board uses an additional developmental timeline, also created with Jacqueline Hannah’s help. This timeline takes those large tasks and breaks them down even further. It also adds additional tasks that aren’t present on the Membership timeline—these tasks include creating policies, reaching out to lenders, and pre-planning for events. This board task timeline is our working document to help keep us on track with all the moving parts that we need to manage to bring this project to fruition.

We know we can’t open our co-op without our community joining and becoming Members. But even if we had a 1000 members tomorrow, we would still need to complete the tasks that are required to open a grocery store. We have categories covering owner goals, site, producers, key membership events, feasibility, finance, governance, owner capital, and staffing. These categories are the base, as we know tasks pop up that need to be completed that may not have been planned or may not fit neatly into one of these categories. For example, ongoing communication (board letters, social media, emails, phone calls and more) takes a solid investment of time and energy, but we see this more as a “rolling task” that is both proactive and responsive to membership needs.

Having these two timelines—Membership Timeline and Board Task Timeline—has really created clarity for us in our messaging to the public. And it keeps us clear about our “behind the scenes” work needed to keep this project on track.

Note: Oshkosh built their Membership Timeline right into their member recruiting brochure. They have graciously shared a PDF example for you to review and see if this strategy might help your group. Oshkosh Food Co-op Membership Brochure 2017


Why FCI likes this:  Timelines are simply awesome tools, and all startups should be using them! The development timeline is a living document that spells out tasks, goals, and actions with dates, and helps groups stay on top of the myriad details starting a co-op entails. But the Membership Timeline is one of the best ways to help members and prospective members, see progress and understand why every member counts towards opening the doors of their new co-op. Use it on your website, Facebook page, and any way you can to keep people informed of your progress.

More FCI resources on Timelines:

Just Food – Developmental Timeline PDF

Timelines for Members