The coronavirus pandemic is having profound impacts on business and society around the world. The public health, policy and economic environment seem to be shifting under our feet. Sadly, as usual, those who are most vulnerable—both in terms of health and economic instability—are at the greatest risk. Like other communities and businesses, cooperatives are finding ways to support and serve their members, staff and the broader community.
In times of uncertainty and crisis, most people look for stabilizing forces—polestars that orient our direction, guidelines that provide clarity, or a set of express values and principles that anchor how we engage in society. As cooperators, now more than ever we need to consider our cooperative identity—the shared values and principles that define our unique business model.
As cooperators, now more than ever we need to consider our cooperative identity—the shared values and principles that define our unique business model.
The cooperative values make clear that while self-responsibility is valued, so too is solidarity—the idea that a community has common interests and mutually supports each other. The coronavirus pandemic brings focus to the notion of common interest: as a local, national and global community, we have an interest in maintaining our public health. And only if each one of us takes responsibility, will we be able to decrease the harm to society as a whole.
Let’s consider two of the cooperative principles in the context of coronavirus: Cooperation among Cooperatives, and Concern for Community. Just this morning I heard from Christina Jennings, Executive Director of Shared Capital Cooperative, which is working on making emergency loans available to co-ops. They’re also offering payment relief to current borrowers who are experiencing financial challenges as a result of business closure or disruptions. This is Principle Six in action. Using the resources we have to lift up other cooperatives—knowing that the help provided to a co-op embedded in the community will sustain and stabilize that community—is one of the many actions that distinguish cooperatives from other businesses.
This leads to Principle Seven, Concern for Community. On Friday, I received an email update from my local food co-op here in Takoma Park, Maryland. The general manager shared that because Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op is experiencing historic sales, the co-op looked outward to what it could do to help the community and made donations to local food pantries and other community-based organizations. Meanwhile, the Panola-Harrison Electric Co-op in East Texas announced that it will suspend disconnections until further notice for members who are unable to pay their electric bill in light of coronavirus.
On a more national scale, the Cooperative Development Fund administers a Disaster Recovery Fund that, in the past, has accepted dollars from the cooperative community to assist others who have suffered from disasters. The Cooperative Development Foundation is looking at how it can most effectively deploy this fund to help co-ops address the unique circumstances surrounding the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, NCBA CLUSA launched a microsite on COVID-19 resources for the cooperative business community and held a webinar to help cooperatives prepare for potential business interruptions related to the outbreak. In the coming days, we look forward to expanding the site to lift up ways cooperatives are acting on the principles of cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community. Be part of this effort by sharing your co-op’s story. Send us an email with the subject line “Principles at Work.”
—Doug O’Brien is president and CEO of NCBA CLUSA, where he works with the cooperative community to deepen its impact on the economy. Greg Irving is a research assistant at NCBA CLUSA.