Striving to strike a balance
In a major revamp of the co-op’s rulebook, Tirlán members have voted to change the agri-co-op’s representative structure to include more female participation, as well as increase the proportion of younger farmers on the Tirlán Council and regional representative bodies in Ireland
These are the first significant rule changes in almost a quarter of a century. As Brendan Hayes, Tirlán vice chair put it: “We have been planning these changes for the past two years, with a lot of consultation with our membership, through our various structures including our area committees, our regional representatives and our council. The board also studied international best practice in Europe as well as the US and New Zealand, which have strong cooperative structures in their agricultural sectors.”
Reflecting societal demands
The need to fundamentally reform the co-operative representative structure reflects the changes that have taken place in Irish farming as well as in Irish society generally, Brendan explains: “Our shareholder numbers have almost halved over the past two decades, to around 11,000 members, reflective of reducing farm numbers, generally, and the fact that the society has been retiring shareholdings that are no longer in active use. The fact that our members have ready access to a variety of information-providing mechanisms meant that our interaction with the membership needed to be reformed through changes in our representative structure, changes in our communication processes and, ultimately, changes in the make-up of our structures.
“We recognised that there was a gender issue in our membership profile. We have an under-representation of females in our structure, and we needed to rectify that fact. Hoping for change is not adequate. We must be proactive in increasing our female participation on our representative structures. Gender balance is not only a socially desirable pursuit, but also increasingly a necessity as legislation is enforcing it across all facets of Irish society and business. By imposing designated places on our representative bodies for female members, we are acknowledging the deficit and acting to improve the balance.
“In the short term, the rule changes will lift female representation to 15 per cent. It is not the ideal way to achieve a greater gender balance, we recognise that. But we need a step-change, or nothing will happen. That percentage, while relatively low, is reflective of the numbers of women involved in a managerial or ownership capacity in Irish farming. We anticipate that enforcing greater balance on our representative structures will build momentum for women to come forward and seek election to our area, regional, council and, ultimately, our co-op board.”
Promoting a youthful structure
The ageing profile of co-op membership in Ireland was also a concern: “We have an issue with our age profile. To rectify that, we are setting up a youth academy, with five groups across our co-operative regions which run from Cork up to Meath. We are inviting young men and women to become involved, he explained.
“The intention is to raise their awareness of the activities of the co-op, to provide them with a greater insight of the impact Tirlán has on their lives and livelihoods. The groups will have access to a variety of speakers and mentors both from within the co-op and from outside organisations. We are not unique in terms of an unbalanced representative profile, whether it is too few women or too few younger people involved. That’s why we are engaged in this process and when we put the proposals to our shareholders those proposals were overwhelmingly accepted. That alone shows both the willingness to change on the part of our members and the fact that they recognise the need for change.”
Tirlán intends to support would-be representatives to make a positive contribution to the co-op society, as the Tirlán vice-chair outlines: “We are planning an extensive education and mentoring process to provide members with the skills and competencies to become actively involved. There will be five layers of training, to be available as members become more involved in representational roles. It will range from light touch to more intensive training, reflective of the range and complexities of the businesses that Tirlán has and the challenges of overseeing those businesses for shareholder members through our board, council and other representative structures.
“The overall aim is that as members progress along up to board level they can actively contribute to decision making, critically analyse financial and accounting data and be fully equipped with the knowledge of the Irish and global food industry necessary to oversee an international modern business that has huge impacts on them personally and professionally. In turn, these representatives need the communication skills necessary to inform the members they represent of the performance of the organisation and the rationale for the decisions that are taken, as well as competently reflecting the concerns and priorities of the membership back to the board and management of the Tirlán Co-operative Society.”
Key recommendations to enhance the co-op’s governance structures and facilitate increased diversity include:
The formation of a Governance Academy to build knowledge, confidence and social connection at all levels of the membership structure, with minimum training requirements for board and council eligibility. This will offer a broad range of accredited courses to Tirlán members;
Creation of young farmer groups to educate young people about the co-op structure, encourage greater involvement and build a strong succession pipeline;
The formation of a Grain Advisory Group, as a forum for the business to exchange views with professional grain grower members that supply Tirlán;
Promoting greater gender diversity in the co-op structures by creating new seats on regional committees and council that will be available to women joining the representative structure;
Proposing maximum term limits on committees, council and board – allowing new people more opportunities to participate while still retaining experienced members.