SCAA and SCAE proceed with unification

On August 10, 2016, the Specialty Coffee Association of America awaited its fate. After a month-long poll from July 5 to August 5, eligible members of the Southern California-based organisation were presented with the opportunity to vote for or against SCAA’s unification with the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe. The results of the poll came in: 56 per cent of eligible members had voted and 62 per cent of those votes were “yes.” This was the mandate the SCAA needed to proceed with the unification it had been campaigning in favour of for nearly a year. The SCAE had already released the results of its own member poll three months earlier: 51 per cent of its almost 5000 members voted, with a strong 86 per cent in favor of the unification. What’s more, regardless of their vote, 99 per cent agreed to have their membership transferred if the majority voted in favour of unification. Although change is inevitable when merging two national associations, especially with 9000 kilometres between them, proponents of the changes see them as a “natural progression” of an increasingly global business. “What’s happening is quite historic and game-changing,” says SCAE Executive Director David Veal. “But at the same time, all we’re really doing is reflecting what’s already there: a vibrant, active global specialty coffee community.” Brewing over time
Despite the activity in the past year, the idea has actually been in the works for much longer, unofficially spurred when the SCAA joined the SCAE to co-host the World Barista Championship, an event the SCAE launched back in 2001. By 2010, the annual competition had grown into a co-owned company, World Coffee Events. While the similar organisations aligned in many ways, their strong, complementary education programs were the obvious next step in joining forces. Then, a key meeting in Rimini, Italy was called in June 2014 to explore completely unifying the two. Leaders in both camps recognised their efforts overlapped quite a bit and could potentially be combined. They also discovered that members of both associations value the same things: coffee education, coffee communities and events, and coffee resources and research. “These are core across both organisations,” says SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart, “so they became the foundation for moving forward together.” Adds SCAA Vice President Tracy Ging, “When we looked at unifying with our counterparts in Europe, it was really important that we establish that we have a common vision and a common mission. From there, we looked at how we execute against the vision to achieve the mission”. By summer 2015, a four-phase plan was put in place and Rhinehart shared the news with his members. “We are at our best when collaborating with coffee people all over the world to foster an environment where everyone in the coffee value chain benefits,” he wrote, also emphasising a promise to continue providing value to members. From there, the SCAA and SCAE brought in experts, conducted a feasibility study, and wrote a business prospectus, plan and budget. They left no stone unturned before passing the final decision onto their members. “The SCAA Board has been there all the way, poring over details and ensuring that any unification serves our members first,” wrote SCAA Board of Directors Vice President Heather Perry in an essay for Barista Magazine. “We, together with the leadership of the SCAE, came up with a plan that we believe serves the members of our organisations and finally puts specialty coffee where it belongs: on the world stage.” Priority on local
While movement toward unification has been generally positive, it has not been without hesitancy from some. The 38 per cent of SCAA members who voted “no” included a group of former association leaders who were reluctant to join forces. Among their fears is that a multinational organisation would mean attention and resources would shift toward the global coffee industry and away from the United States’ local coffee industry, one SCAA had been supporting since its inception in 1982 (SCAE launched about 16 years later). But leaders in both parties remain confident that local members will remain the focus. “We recognised that our greatest opportunity was also our greatest challenge,” says Rhinehart. “We had the opportunity to have greater global influence to make the voice of specialty coffee heard at a greater level, but we knew it was critical to stay active at the local level.” Instead of diluting the association’s impact, Rhinehart stresses that the unification will actually provide existing and new members with greater access to education, resources, events and more. Additionally, it will open up opportunities for networking and collaboration, all to the benefit of the global industry and its stakeholders, including farmers, roasters, baristas and more. The organisations will retain their offices: the SCAA’s near Los Angeles and the SCAE’s near London. Research will take place in both, while main operations will be based in Europe and sustainability and events will be based in the US, says Veal. “The combined organisation is not geographically restricted by function, though. To ensure that our services will be locally relevant to all of our members worldwide, a decentralised structure was selected as the best model to reach and serve a widely dispersed global community.” The two associations represent 10,000-plus members, with the split pretty equal across the two. As such, voting will be relatively even, especially with SCAA inheriting SCAE’s model of “one member, one voice.” In the SCAA’s current model, only corporate members are eligible to vote, which represents about half of its total members. Once unified, all members will have the option of voting in any future polls. Says Ging of the concerns and obstacles they’ve encountered, “The benefits far outweigh the challenges, but we don’t want to discount the challenges that may be ahead of us.” She says the main challenge thus far has been around cultural differences and working together: “Sure, we’ll have disagreements at times or we might not understand each other the first time around, but we’re really going to focus on a cross-functional, cross-cultural leadership team so [cultural differences are] less of a concern going forward.” Together as one
Following the SCAA’s vote, strategic planning commenced, with a series of meetings in London in mid-September. “It was quite exciting to have all the board and executives together,” Veal tells Global Coffee Report. “We started with two sides, but we really progressed as a team and there really is a sense of togetherness.” The merged organisations will be one specialty coffee association that represents both European and US specialty coffee markets. Once combined, the nonprofit will represent members in more than 100 countries and bring in estimated revenue of more than US$26 million by 2021, up from US$15 million this year. Rhinehart calls the SCAA and SCAE “healthy” parent organisations, each with strong cash flow and more than five years of continuous revenue growth, that can support the greater access to resources leaders are promising and initiatives on the agenda. “From the very outset, the litmus test was can this unification increase member benefits?” says Rhinehart, echoing Perry’s earlier sentiments. “Having the pooled resources allows us to execute at a higher level in a wide variety of ways” – and across the entire supply chain. In the unification, the SCAA hopes to build greater value in each of those supply chain links, or “guilds” as they’re called within the association. Additionally, the organisation will focus on expanding and adding to the three core values. “Because our content has always been quite close, discussions about unification were led by aligning our education programs,” says Veal, “so one of the first things you’ll see is a unified education program.” In the short term, they’ll align SCAA’s Educational Pathways program with SCAE’s Coffee Diploma System. Through 2019, they’ll then focus on developing alternative education platforms and expanding distribution of educational information and resources. Ging says that will come largely by “opening up some investment for digital connectivity. We recognise that area has been underfunded. So the more things we can move electronically and the more we can apply technology, the more we should be able to make the dissemination of information more efficient … It’s very much part of the vision of combining resources that we can invest more in technology, and with more members we can do more and create more points of access around the globe.” In 2019 and beyond, strategy with the educational program will be centred on evaluating efficacy and making sure that it’s producing highly trained coffee professionals who are properly equipped for and valued by the greater coffee industry. Two new core values will also receive significant attention in the coming years: sustainability and advocacy, both of which will see key partnerships and alignment with complementary organisations. In the immediate term, the unified organisation will need time to develop its sustainability position before opening up to membership participation and funding-related initiatives. “It won’t all change immediately,” assures Veal, “because we have our current obligations to members and partners.” For the remainder of 2016, it will be business as usual at both organisations as they finish out the year with their current commitments and prepare for official launch in January. Moving towards global unity?
While it’s obviously early days, some question whether there’s a longer-term plan to ultimately join forces with other specialty coffee associations around the globe. “We do have members in more than 100 countries, but it’s not our objective at the moment,” Veal tells GCR. Considering the aforementioned cultural differences between two English-speaking regions, it’s reasonable to assume significant differences would exist with other countries, especially with the majority of coffee bean-producing countries not having English as their first language. Other countries with specialty coffee associations include Brazil, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Japan and more. “We started where we had the most in common: shared language, shared culture, and the ability to communicate our shared vision and mission,” says Rhinehart. “We have to make sure we can walk before we run … I am confident that in the near future, we will be able to look across the specialty coffee landscape and see the concrete results of our efforts.” GCR

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