Earlier this month, NCBA CLUSA held its 103rd Annual Membership Meeting as part of Co-op Week celebrations in Washington, DC. Against the backdrop of a new report from the United Nations on the devastating impact of climate change on animal and plant species, continuing rancor over immigration policies, and growing recognition of the challenge of increasing wealth inequality, cooperators from across the country and many parts of the world gathered to celebrate, reflect and envision a more sustainable, participatory and inclusive economy—together.
“We face a pivotal opportunity to share the cooperative model with people who want greater control over their economic lives,” NCBA CLUSA president and CEO Doug O’Brien said in his welcome to the gathering.
A central challenge for co-ops in achieving this goal is how to effectively address the lack of awareness of the cooperative difference, particularly among policymakers. To help remedy this, NCBA CLUSA has been engaging foundations, research organizations and other groups to explore the relevance of co-ops to today’s critical challenges. One example of this effort, presented during the Cooperative Development Foundation’s Co-op Issues Forum, also during Co-op Week, is The ABCs of Cooperative Impact, a report released by the influential Urban Institute last December.
“Our goal was to answer the question of how cooperatives—as user-owned, democratically controlled businesses—contribute to participation, growth, stability and equity in communities,” said Brett Theodos, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the authors of the report, along with Corianne Payton Scally and Leiha Edmonds. “We set out to create a framework that could be applied to all cooperative types and would include outcomes for co-op members as well as their broader communities.”
The report presented a seven-component measurement framework across the spectrum of cooperative sectors. In keeping with its alphabetical theme, the report proposed that cooperative impact can best be understood according to a core set of factors including:
- Access A cooperative can increase access to affordable quality products, services, suppliers and markets, lowering costs and serving markets and communities historically seen as “higher risk” or underserved.
- Business sustainability A cooperative business can increase firm survival and profitability through higher and less volatile revenues, lower costs and a focus on long-term outcomes, including scaling the cooperative to compete with multinational corporations.
- Community commitment A community-focused cooperative is committed to being a good neighbor through education, financial support, facility use and business practices that reflect the values of the community.
- Democratic governance and empowerment In a well-functioning cooperative, membership actively participates and shapes the mission and decisions of the organization, which translates into broader civic and political involvement.
- Equity, diversity and inclusion To be an effective contributor to its community, cooperative membership reflects the community in racial composition, gender, age and abilities, and historically excluded communities and individuals have a voice and leadership opportunities.
- Financial security and advancement for workers Cooperatives work best for their members, employees and communities when they provide living-wage jobs with benefits and increased opportunity for wealth-building, career advancement, training and leadership development with lower turnover and higher job satisfaction.
- Growth Cooperatives can be local and regional anchors, promoting economic growth through stable jobs, high industry standards, consistent services and economic multiplier effects through increased community investment, local jobs and local procurement.
To illustrate how these factors could be applied to a better understanding of cooperative impact, the presentation included a panel of representatives from across sectors, including utilities cooperatives, credit unions, farmer co-ops and housing cooperatives.
Jerry McGeorge, Vice President for Cooperative Affairs at Organic Valley, shared the story of this co-op’s humble beginnings in Wisconsin in the midst of the family farm crisis of the 1980s. Flash forward to the present and Organic Valley is a billion-dollar cooperative, owned by more than 2,000 family farmers, including over 600 here in the Northeast. In between, the co-op has had a dramatic influence on the growth and success of the organic industry.
“But our impact is not just for our farmers,” McGeorge said. “We also employ more than 1,000 people, most of whom are based in one of the poorest parts of our state, and have recently implemented a $15 per hour minimum wage. It is the partnership between our farmer members and our employees that makes this effort work.”
Like many electric co-ops, BARC Electric Cooperative in Virginia got its start when commercial energy providers cherry-picked more profitable urban areas, leaving rural communities without power. Farmers banded together and, in 1938, established a community owned cooperative to meet their own needs, together. Today, CEO Mike Keyser describes BARC as being in the “quality of life business,” as it has expanded its services to solar energy development and the provision of broadband internet to ensure that rural communities are not left out of a rapidly changing economy.
Paul Bradley, president of New Hampshire-based ROC USA®, shared the profound impact of the cooperative business model for residents of mobile home parks. These communities typically face an enormous amount of insecurity because the land, utilities and roads are owned by someone else and can be bought and sold, enabling them to own their co through direct ownership and control of their communities. Founded in 2008, in its first nine years ROC USA helped convert 119 communities in 14 states to cooperative ownership, empowering 8,400 families to build a more stable and secure future.
Cooperative leadership is focused on service, with the core purpose of creating impact and building a better future for co-op members and their communities. It’s as basic as the ABCs.
Credit unions are another example of the power of the cooperative business model, with most of them getting their start among working people locked out of investor-owned financial services. Carla Decker, president & CEO of DC Credit Union, shared the story of local government employees, primarily African-Americans, who banded together to form a financial cooperative in the 1950s. As demographics have changed in the city, so has the credit union, expanding its charter beyond city employees and obtaining designation as a “Low Income Credit Union” and “Community Development Financial Institution” to be more responsive to and inclusive of immigrant, Latino and other underserved communities.
Along with bringing forward the best thinking on the cooperative distinction, Co-op Week also features the Co-op Hall of Fame, which celebrates the induction of this year’s Co-op Heroes, including two extraordinary leaders from right here the Northeast: Terry Appleby, retired General Manager of Co-op Food Stores of New Hampshire and Vermont; and Dr. Richard Stammer, former president and CEO of Agri-Mark and Cabot Creamery Cooperative. In the early 1990s, during particularly hard times for dairy farmers, Stammer played a key role in ensuring the survival of two co-ops through a merger that enabled farmer-members to continue to own their product from the farm to the grocery store shelf.
It was a particular honor to celebrate the induction of Terry Appleby into the Co-op Hall of Fame. While his career in co-ops began on the west coast, Terry has been a guiding light for the cooperative community here in the Northeast since taking on the role of General Manager of one our oldest and most esteemed food co-ops, the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society in Hanover, New Hampshire, better known as Co-op Food Stores. Under Terry’s 25 years of leadership, this co-op became a major influence on the regional food system and economy, growing from one store to four locations in two states and more than $75 million in sales. Terry has also been a generous mentor to other co-ops and played a key role in the development of National Co+op Grocers and the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, which today includes 35 food co-ops and startups, locally owned by 150,000 members across New England and New York State, employing over 2,300 people, and selling more than $93 million in local products annually.
As all of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees pointed out, cooperative leadership is focused on service, with the core purpose of creating impact and building a better future for co-op members and their communities. It’s as basic as the ABCs.
—Erbin Crowell serves as Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association. He received his Master of Management: Co-operatives & Credit Unions from Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and serves on the Board of Directors of NCBA CLUSA. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.