In this week’s Principle 6 Newsletter, guest author Maurice Smith explores the inherent tension between individuality and community, and why cooperatives need to strike a balance.
The health of the cooperative movement, he argues, depends on its leaders being “fierce defenders” of both. While individuality can invite competition, it’s a big part of loyalty to members; and too much conformity can suppress individual democratic control.
Read the full newsletter below, and consider how “cooperation among cooperatives” could help co-ops navigate this contrast. 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!
Principle 6 Newsletter – Individuality & Community: A Cooperative Contrast
May 26, 2022
An essential element of cooperatives is the fundamental belief in the power of community. This concept is more than a sentimental notion. Community is the societal connection that binds us to a common purpose.
The ideology of community is expressed in the Cooperative Principles. In such, we articulate our preference for collaboration. We describe our companionship in the movement. We operate in a symbiotic ecosystem that is designed to support one another. We truly believe that united we are stronger.
Like any society, there are undercurrents that offer potential contradictions against our reasons for being. As cooperatives get larger, more sophisticated and self-sufficient, there is a risk that we lull ourselves into the false security that community no longer matters as much. This is a perilous journey that deserves sober self-examination and reconsideration.
Individuality is an intoxicating idea. To have arrived at a point where a cooperative has reached a level of assured scale and sustainability is an objective many hope to achieve. Cooperative leaders are no different from other corporate leaders in this respect. We all want the assurances that we have built a going concern that is somewhat immune to market pressures. For cooperatives, a fallacy could exist with this notion of individual self-sufficiency.
The tensions between community and individuality require measured contemplation. Individuality is a shearing force against community. It compels us to seek singular solutions, self-centered results, and insular thinking. A focus on the individual cooperative instructs us to look inward for all sources of validation. At the extreme, it could lead to organizational hubris.
Individuality forsakes the community for its own gratification. Even worse, individuality sets up an environment for competition. The contrast of community is market combat. This is often a bilateral choice between institutions. Organizations either see their neighbors as predators or prey. This is not a healthy environment for any community.
Organizations either see their neighbors as predators or prey. This is not a healthy environment for any community.
The contradiction of individuality in the cooperative world is not so easily reconciled. We do not argue that each cooperative should be homogenized to the extent that their individual democratic control is compromised. Contrary to this thought, cooperatives must exercise their individual fiduciary duty of loyalty to their members. This contradiction requires finesse, balance, and intentionality.
Individuality is an important consideration when the focus is on the internal workings of the cooperative. Cooperatives should regard each member as an individual. Members deserve the basic dignity of being seen for the specific concerns each has. It would be insulting to humanity to lose sight that every person wants to be recognized as unique, with particularized needs.
All cooperatives are pressed to see the separable needs among members. Each member brings a singular set of concerns. Each member has dreams for an improved existence. Individuality is a foundation for superior service that must exist in each cooperative. There are many needs members share. Even so, we recognize they have unique circumstances that deserve special treatment.
Most members want a safe home for their children, a meaningful occupation, and to be treated with respect. Cooperatives must absolutely provide members with individual goods and services that meet their personal needs.
When we apply individuality at the institutional level among cooperatives, we risk degrading into protectionism. Isolationism presents the cooperative community with friction that tears away our unique relationship to one another.
Cooperatives must strike a state of coexistence between focus on ‘my domain’ and attention to community. This juxtaposition is not always easily accomplished. Yet, the cooperative community’s unique characteristics should demand full fidelity to and recognition of our fundamental community values.
The cooperative community should not exist in siloed industries. Credit unions could share an affordable housing-centered community with worker and housing cooperatives. Telecom and electric cooperatives can be a rural broadband community. If the greater cooperative movement is a community, each individual sector is a neighborhood. Good neighbors do not sacrifice community for individuality. This is tantamount to erecting fences that segment our neighborhood into smaller, less sustainable units.
If the greater cooperative movement is a community, each individual sector is a neighborhood. Good neighbors do not sacrifice community for individuality.
Here’s a suggestion for contemplation. When faced with a policy decision, each cooperative board should insist on discussion from the perspectives of individuality and community. Ask questions that focus the dialog on achieving balance between individuality and community. Cooperative leaders owe their neighbors the thoughtful consideration of decisions that could erode the community.
Though sometimes on different ends of the scale, individuality and community must coexist. The health of the cooperative movement depends on its leaders being fierce defenders of both. If we focus on the individuals in our cooperatives and commit to communities of learning, collaborating, and serving members among our fellow cooperatives, we strike a healthy balance.