Language barriers or diverse dialects?

Image show many hands coming together, each holding a different piece of a puzzle.
How can current co-op leaders become more creative about finding and motivating the future leaders of the American cooperative system?

In this week’s newsletter, Mike Mercer unpacks the language co-ops use—to identify themselves, to differentiate themselves, to market themselves. That language naturally differs from co-op to co-op, across sectors and business size. Even when shared messaging is prioritized, it’s often hard to fit in a soundbite. How can co-ops find the common language they need to cooperate with each other?

“Take a strategic look at the power of language. Think about ways that the differences could be regarded not as insurmountable barriers, but as dialects, rich in their diversity,” Mercer writes.

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 – Language Barriers or Diverse Dialects?

November 10, 2021


As a community-owned cooperative, we make decisions to maximize service to our owners and our community. We are a gathering place for people and ideas as well as a place to shop. We aim to implement the most environmentally sustainable practices in all aspects of our operation and to join others in working toward positive environmental goals for our community. We collaborate with other businesses and entities in our community and put a special focus on sharing best practices on nutrition, wellness, and the benefits of moving toward a more plant-based diet. – “What is Our Mission?” About, Fredericksburg Food Co-op Website, 11-4-21

Reliable, safe electricity,
Rate competitive,
Robust governance,
Relevant services,
Recognized employer. – “
Our Mission,” About, Cobb Electric Membership Website, 11-4-21

We know that a crisis that emerges from a serious conflict of interests in a given society is dialectical in nature, but it contains within itself the seeds or forces to overcome it. – “Civil Economy,” Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni, 2016

If you’ve seen one co-op, you’ve seen one co-op. How many times has that been said?

To an outsider, the language of co-ops can present conflicting signals. As any lobbyist can attest, conflicting signals lead to confusion and diminished impact. To insiders (i.e. co-op leaders), the language of co-ops can be a cacophony of familiar opinions and foreign concepts. A consultant would be justified in wondering whether the conflicting signals represent insurmountable language barriers or rich diversity of thought within a cohesive community.

Let’s examine some of the sources for conflicting signals…

Local vs. Scale

Local is a virtue claimed by most small co-ops. They have a focused mission, strong values and they really know their members. Often, they feel looked down upon and unappreciated by their bigger brethren. The large co-ops are running professional businesses they reckon, fighting against even bigger providers in brutally competitive markets. They look to efficiency and scale to get an edge. They’re still co-ops at the DNA level (creating value and doing good), but there’s no taking their eyes off the operating KPIs. The small and large co-ops speak increasingly different dialects and rarely gather together.

Functional Silos

The officials at the new Drivers Co-op probably have trouble relating to the homecare co-ops, even though both are technically worker co-ops. Credit unions talk consumer finance and the regulations attached thereto. Rural electric co-ops know energy and the labyrinth of related regulations. Both are consumer co-ops, have overlapping members and near identical governance structures. Notwithstanding, they don’t much gather around the water cooler to trade stories. And they’d have trouble keeping up with all of the sector acronyms if they did.

My Domain vs. Our System

Draped across all other characterizations of co-op distinction, this one is a leadership frame of mind. But it leads to significant language barriers. The U.S. is a haven for independent freedom in decision-making. It’s baked into the cultural genetic code even though America has been populated by cooperation-inclined peoples from other places. In the co-op world there is a constructive tension between independence (rationalized by, but misunderstood in co-op principle #4, autonomy & independence) and collective initiative (addressed in principle #6, cooperation among cooperatives). For the record, “autonomy and independence” in principle #4 rejects government control and heavy-handed religious influence. Among co-ops, interdependence is the overwhelming guidance from cooperative principles. Liturgy aside, those inclined toward independence are reluctant to share, never mind collaborate. Those that strive for system solutions are quickly frustrated by the my-domain crowd.

Co-op Identification vs. Commercial Identification

To some, the cooperative structure is incidental, maybe even accidental. “I interviewed for this job, didn’t know much about co-ops, but I know agriculture.” Confronted with cooperative values and principles, these agnostic souls embrace a “nice-but-not-that-relevant” posture. They identify with the commercial attributes of the enterprise. For most co-op leaders, cooperative identity is about more than just a structure and tax preferences. It is a way of looking at the business, bringing fairness and inclusivity into the market. The values, principles and practices inform everything that takes place. Priority is given to members, not metrics. Being identified as a cooperative is considered to be a significant competitive advantage. Not surprisingly, conversations across this gulf require skilled translation.

Social Purpose vs. Economic Purpose

In a 2019 Working Paper, Sonja Novkovic from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax writes: “Co-operative firms are known to possess a dual character; on the one hand they are businesses driven by economic incentives, while on the other they are associations with a social purpose and character.” In conversations among co-op leaders, it is not uncommon for one element of purpose to be elevated in reverence above the other. In so doing, the social purpose advocates can be heard to disparage the character of ultra-economic purpose co-ops. Likewise, those that view economic purpose to be preeminent are quick to characterize the social purpose purists as being idealistic and judgmental. Truth is that all co-ops are economic enterprises and social institutions to varying degrees. Still, that doesn’t solve the language incompatibilities. Witness the mission statements at the top of the newsletter.

The good news is that co-ops of all stripes have much language in common…

Shared History Co-ops are endowed with a recorded history that reaches back into the early stages of the industrial revolution. Cooperative principles were put to paper in England at the same time that the limited-liability corporation and state-enforced communism were invented to contend with the new industrial order of economic things. Collective economic practices actually emerged long before in societies all around the globe, including the Americas. The cooperative business model is not a recent fad and it has significant impact worldwide. Present day co-ops are built upon a solid and time-tested foundation. Employees learn about co-op history and the values/principles that have been honed along the path. Members learn about the co-op difference. Articulation of history has solidified into a common language.

Democratic Structures “One member, one vote” is the refrain. Control by people, not by capital is the foundational principle. Equal say, not proportional influence. When capital is needed, non-controlling instruments are almost universally sought. As the number of members grows, the need to delegate authority to a representative board becomes necessary. Direct democracy is not feasible once the co-op succeeds and grows. But the fiduciary duty continues to flow from the members. The language here is universal.

Elevated Focus on Members The cooperative structure makes it possible to elevate concern for the well-being of members to a higher priority than is possible under the for-profit form of organization. To some, this means not having to report earnings to analysts and reporters on a quarterly basis. At the other end of the spectrum, the cooperative structure makes it easier to fulfill a member-centric mission. But virtually all co-op leaders believe that the cooperative structure contributes substantially to a strong member service culture that is routinely backed up with satisfaction survey data. The ability to put members forward in the decision process is another common element of language and expectations.

Antithetical to “For-Profit,” “For-Vote” and “Non-Profit” In business, it’s rarely good to look just like the (often bigger) competitors. Co-ops have developed language similarities to contend that they are not to be confused with large extractive for-profit firms. Nor are they to be grouped in with vote-seeking government social initiatives. And, since co-ops are businesses that must be disciplined to generate profits from internal means, they cannot be lumped in with programmatic non-profits. To these ends, co-ops share a common desire to not be characterized as any of the above. The problem, of course, is explaining what they are, especially to prospective members. “I prefer to do business with not-for-profit, member-owned and democratically structured companies” is not the sort of thing that one hears in the bleachers at the high school football game. “Not capitalist, not socialist, and not grant-funded” doesn’t provide staff with the best of elevator speeches. So, common language is desired, but hard to fit into a practical soundbite.

Common Opportunity in Co-op Identity This is a work in progress. The observation is that people are worried about making ends meet and achieving their life goals. And the theory is that they are skeptical about the current structures (big business and polarized governments) being “on their side” in the years ahead. This is the time, the thinking goes, for co-ops to step forward with others to create an economic/institutional framework that gives folks a better shot at their share of the pie. An alternative way to organize work, aggregate purchasing power, obtain quality education, secure affordable health care, and to achieve the other things in life—with organizations that are structured to be helpful. This would be the language of co-op opportunity. It could be forged by the practice of cooperation among co-ops.

Step back from the daily to-do list. Take a strategic look at the power of language. Think about ways that the differences could be regarded not as insurmountable barriers, but as dialects, rich in their diversity.

Take a strategic look at the power of language. Think about ways that the differences could be regarded not as insurmountable barriers, but as dialects, rich in their diversity.

We’re either doing this cooperative thing together, or not. Language barriers can keep co-ops apart. Said the other way, bringing co-ops together could serve to minimize the barriers of language, ignorance and indifference. And, in the emerging economy of fairness and sustainability, there could be significant opportunity for all co-ops.

Stay tuned,

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