A co-op commonwealth renaissance

Image show many hands coming together, each holding a different piece of a puzzle.
A “community co-op commonwealth” could be a powerful way for local co-ops to better understand their communities.

Cooperation among cooperatives tends to take place within a particular sector or industry. But in this week’s issue of the Principle 6 Newsletter, republished below, Mike Mercer imagines what would happen if every city or country had a “community co-op commonwealth” working to identify and address local needs—together.

“Eventually, the community and its leaders would come to see co-ops as a primary go-to group for improving the well-being of their citizens,” he writes.

Read the full issue of Principle 6 Newsletter below. And while you’re thinking about “cooperation among cooperatives,” take a moment to consider how you and your cooperative practice this principle. NCBA CLUSA is on a mission to document Principle 6 collaborations across the country so we can identify trends, document best practices and share this knowledge with you—our fellow cooperators!

Share your example of Principle 6


Principle 6 Newsletter – Commonwealth

Issue 15 – February 9, 2021

The premise of the 6th Principle (ie: co-operatives cooperate) is not that co-operatives cannot exist without each other. Co-operatives by their design are self-sustaining organisms. Co-operatives can operate and succeed alone, but will only thrive and grow the co-operative commonwealth when they work together.” – Guidance Notes to Cooperative Principles, ICA, 2015

“The idea of a co-operative sector in the economy is too often (just) an intellectual concept without a corresponding material identity, simply because of the lack of unity and cohesion between the different branches of the movement.” –  23rd Congress, International Co-operative Alliance, 1966

“The housing crisis, the gig economy, digital platforms, AI, automation, biometrics, nano technology, global climate change, a global pandemic, Brexit—we’re not without challenges in the UK. But we have a real opportunity here, the co‑operative movement is due a renaissance—I think we’re on the cusp of it.” – Rose Marley, CEO. Co-operatives UK

Any co-op of size, including a credit union, can largely exist on its own.

Reality check: This only works as long as most of the other co-ops cooperate to protect (and enhance) the license to operate, the structures for leveraging buying power, the cultivation of positive public reputation and the structures for sharing risk. In the credit union sector, fortunately, most other credit unions lend a shoulder to all these things.

Any sector in the cooperative “commonwealth” can also exist largely on its own.

Many credit union leaders conceptualize their institutions to be a part of the financial services industry. Makes sense on the surface; financial services are what credit unions do. Fewer view their credit union to be first and foremost a part of the co-operative “commonwealth,” meaning strategic kin with all the other co-ops across the numerous sectors of the economy. The “what we do” self-concept may be prevalent in other co-op sectors as well. But, for our purposes here, it would be fair to say that credit unions, as a group, underappreciate the benefits of purposeful engagement with co-ops in other sectors.

Co-operatives UK CEO Rose Marley believes that co-ops are on the cusp of “renaissance.” Enlightened rebirth. In the U.S., there is significant dislike for big business and exceptional distrust for big government among the people. This is clearly a time when not being associated with either of those would be a good thing. In contrast, the timing for being helpfully different could hardly be better. And this is also a time when communities are struggling with a long list of issues that range from childcare to elder care, with jobs, education, health care, housing, racial injustice and a long list of others in between.

Building an impactful co-op commonwealth over the next couple of decades could be the sort of renaissance that Rose Marley is talking about.

Building an impactful co-op commonwealth over the next couple of decades could be the sort of renaissance that Rose Marley is talking about.

Co-ops of all types have one big thing in common. They exist in one way or another to enhance the well-being of the people in their communities. Rural electric co-ops provide affordable power. Housing co-ops improve shelter. Food co-ops bring healthy food into town. Credit unions help people achieve financial security. Ag co-ops help farmers get crops to market. Worker co-ops provide sustainable employment. You get the picture. Collectively, co-ops already do a lot to help people in the community succeed, but mostly in their own service silos.

The greatest opportunity for building a co-op commonwealth exists at the local level. Imagine if every city or county had a “community co-op commonwealth” …a “3-C.” (credit union folks will need an acronym), a co-op of local co-ops whose purpose is to help the area co-op employees and volunteers holistically understand the needs of the people in the community. With that, they could quickly learn how the existing co-ops already solve for some of the challenges. Immediately, co-ops could begin directing their members to other co-ops to fulfill their needs, maybe even offering discounts for this community cross-pollination. In time, the 3-C could serve as an enabler for creating new co-ops in the area. Eventually, the community and its leaders would come to see co-ops as a primary go-to group for improving the well-being of the citizens.

There will be push-back (there always is). “We already give to the local hospital,” or “Nah…we’re members of Rotary…no time for anything else,” or “Starting something like that would be a lot of work.” The large co-ops might feel like their memberships/markets are regional or national. “Local doesn’t apply to us.” It will take dedicated leadership from a couple of local co-ops to overcome these sorts of objections.

One enabler for co-ops that have widely dispersed memberships might be to look at community as the place where the staff mostly lives. In that case, a big co-op could focus on two or three communities where staff is concentrated. Engaging local employees in the community is always a good investment. And something like a local co-op commonwealth might be a great way to do that. If nothing else, staff would become much better informed about all of the challenges facing their neighbors.

Today, most cooperation among co-ops takes place within the sectors. Cross-sector collaboration at the local level could be a way to extend purpose by learning how to holistically help people improve their well-being. And it could be a more powerful way for co-op staff to understand their communities. Enlightened, they will come up with creative solutions, for the 3-C and for their own co-ops. Local cross-sector co-op collaboration would be good for growing the business…and, more importantly, good for the people being served.

It should be an opportune time to invest in the local co-op commonwealth.

Stay tuned,

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