On Unification—The Path That Led Us Here

By Tracy Ging, 2nd Vice President, SCAA Board of Directors

The Specialty Coffee Association of America exists today for the fundamental purpose of recognizing, developing and promoting specialty coffee. Our current reality is that we strive to laud the art and craft of coffee to ensure its future for our stakeholders across the value chain. Our responsibility ranges from the producers on the front lines addressing quality and sustainability challenges to the baristas who draw upon their talent and knowledge to represent the face of specialty coffee to a growing consumer base and all coffee professionals in between. It is within this context and this sense of purpose to serve our members that we as an association found ourselves asking three key questions:

  1. How can we best develop the global perspective to ensure the sustainability and availability of specialty coffee while supporting and promoting the local communities that so often ignite trends and drive interest in what we do?
  2. Will expanding the scope of our association better position the association to improve the lives of the members we serve?
  3. Can we provide more and better services to our membership and the industry at-large while remaining inclusive and attentive to member needs?

The Specialty Coffee Associations of America and Europe have long shared similar beliefs and sense of purpose, and over the past several years, it has become ever clearer that we also share these same questions. After years of collaboration and the mutual desire to better serve our members, we came together to address these questions (and many more) and began to explore a hypothesis that unification held the potential answers.

What became obvious in 2015 was that unification represented a viable opportunity. By combining financial and intellectual resources, effectively eliminating redundancies and inconsistencies between the two associations, more could be invested in programs, education, and events for members while amplifying the presence of specialty coffee worldwide. As this opportunity materialized into a goal, a working group comprised of board members from both organizations along with staff support, was tasked with the “how?”

The group was formed in June 2015 with a purpose to determine the feasibility and mechanics of such a union and has been working steadily since. Most importantly, we were tasked to give thorough consideration to matters of member value, organizational structure, tax, legal, governance, leadership and staff. In other words, our mission was to determine “how” to maintain focus on delivering more benefits to members as a unified organization while ensuring we still function effectively as an organization.

Of course, we needed expert guidance. There is an exceptional team behind the exploration to unify that helped guide us through a formal process while challenging us to address the more difficult questions:

  • Heart + Mind Strategies: A strategic consultancy with deep category and association experience to guide the process, conduct research and facilitate both associations’ collaboration;
  • McKinley Advisors: Association specialists with expertise in organizational dynamics and membership experience to explore potential structural alignment; and
  • Venable: A corporate and business law firm with expertise in tax, governance and legal structures.

These partners gathered input from our association leadership, volunteers, members and other stakeholders, as well as introduced models and best practices from other organizations. They helped us work through the pros and cons of different options, address cultural differences and envision not only how these two organizations could align efforts today but also what the future of specialty coffee looks like — what kind of organization is needed to serve that future.

The outcome of this work was communicated to the officers of both SCAA and SCAE throughout the process and the final outputs were reviewed with the combined executive committees in December of 2015.

Major Considerations

One of the first questions we considered was: do all of our stakeholders see a strategic opportunity as well?

Yes: In a survey conducted with both memberships in September of 2015, over 1400 respondents, equally shared, reacted overwhelmingly optimistic about the potential of unification.


Then, we looked at what could be gained from unification:

  • Sustainability is not bound by geography. There are structural issues facing specialty coffee (supply chain vulnerability) that aren’t geographically specific and we could better advance advocacy efforts with a more coordinated approach.
  • We already offer overlapping events and education. SCAA and SCAE are proliferating events and education in areas outside of their respective geographies, which is actually creating confusion in the global specialty coffee industry – combining the two systems will eliminate the need to keep track of what carries over from one area to another.
  • We are pursuing the same goals. We are utilizing similar staff structures and comparable budgets to achieve similar goals, which could be streamlined to invest more resources in pertinent areas like research, standards development, and sustainability.
  • Our audience is already international. Nearly 40% of attendees at the annual SCAA Event and well over 20% of SCAA members are from outside of the U.S. — we are already a global organization, isn’t it time to start thinking and acting like one?

Guiding Principles

Once we determined the optimism surrounding unification and the advantages it would provide across the board, we turned our attention to the details that would be necessary to go through this process successfully. These imperatives included:

  • The model must support the realization of the association’s mission, vision and strategic goals;
  • Ensure effectiveness as a unified organization while serving local interests;
  • Welcome all members of the value chain, regardless of nationality;
  • Leverage the strengths of SCAA and SCAE today but not fear evolution to meet the needs of tomorrow;
  • Be financially judicious so costs to implement are commensurate with return;
  • The governing body (the board) must be representative yet remain nimble and effective;
  • Invest in enabling resources like staff and technology (i.e., it’s time for our associations to have solid human resource and information technology functions); and
  • We cannot stop the great work already happening — any step towards unification needs to be minimally disruptive.

Basic Structure

With that lofty mandate, we engaged in an in-depth process to create a collective vision, mission and values structure for delivering member value.

We then benchmarked the structures of other global organizations to evaluate which structure would best enable us to fulfill the mission and deliver on the vision we had constructed.

  • anything too centralized would potentially stifle movement
  • after considering the idea being totally decentralized, we quickly recognized we don’t yet have that kind of technological capability

It was clear we needed a certain degree of decentralization to allow for cross-functional, cross-cultural leadership that would focus on creating member value through events, education, sustainability, research and standards, and advocacy. We were looking for a structure that would enable the unified organization to develop the strongest voice and leadership possible to propel the specialty coffee movement. Which, ultimately, led us to this structure:


Challenges and Opportunities

There were some spirited debates after the basic structure discussion that yielded invaluable insights and the group focused on ways to amplify the opportunities and minimize challenges identified:


We remain highly focused on two areas of potential challenge, namely potential culture differences and loss of local effectiveness.

For possible culture differences, there were two aspects:

  1. Market Stage: different markets are in different stages of growth but we agree the imperative is to accelerate specialty coffee no matter the context;
  2. Operating Style: functionally, North Americans are a more comfortable advancing independently while our European friends prefer to build by consensus. Both approaches have value and happy mediums are good things.

• Loss of Effectiveness: Currently, the board and executive staff have decision-making authority but as the organization grows we need more cross-functional, cross-cultural leadership and greater membership participation (one member = one vote), so this risk will be mitigated by increased decentralization. We’ve also established a structure of joint governance, which will expand the board of directors and include representatives from both organizations as well as the guilds.

• Related to effectiveness, there is a concern about local activity. We recognize how important local connections and face-to-face events are. We also think local communities serve those interests better, so our role at SCAA is to aid local activity through events like Bloom, which we plan to continue and build as a unified organization.

Next Steps

The SCAA Board of Directors has reviewed the detail of unification and is confident recommending the move forward to our membership. We’re finalizing legal due diligence, a proposed agreement and by-law amendments, which will be present to the membership for vote. From there, if members accept our proposal, we would enter the implementation phase with a proposed launch of January 2017.

If not this, then what?

To illustrate this question I turn to my personal experience with this process. I joined the working group with the intent to make this work, but was prepared to pull the ripcord at any point that I thought it wouldn’t. After the careful deliberation and analysis of the past months, I can confidently say I don’t have any major reservations. Throughout the process I’ve repeatedly asked myself, “if not this, then what?”

In the face of increasing consolidation in the coffee industry, the potential for category dilution and a supply chain that is vulnerable to climate change and land and labor pressures, I see many advantages to working as a global collective. If unification was not on the horizon we would certainly continue to defend specialty coffee, build standards and definitions that distinguish us in the marketplace and make the necessary investments in the supply chain.

If not unification, then we keep doing those things, but our efforts will resume in diluted fashion should we pursue that alternative as separate individual organizations. As for those three original questions: I and the working group can confidently say that through unification we can act locally and globally, provide more value to our members and continue to strive toward improving the lives of coffee people industry-wide. We are a global organization and our recommendation is to step more fully into that space so we can take advantage of the power and potential of our collective.

For additional information, please visit scaaunification.org where you will find a detailed timeline, perspectives from our community and the opportunity to provide feedback or ask questions. We will continue to update this site as information becomes available and communicate with our membership through email, social channels and at live events.