Centering the Co-op Identity

The third goal of The Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade engages the Co-op Identity. Specifically, the goal states, “Build the co-operative message and secure the co-operative identity.”

The authors comment, “Co-operatives need a more sharply articulated message so that people are more aware of what they are choosing when faced with the option between a co-operative or an investor or privately-owned business.

Studies routinely show that when consumers understand the values and principles behind cooperation, they would prefer to do business with a cooperative. How well are co-ops doing?

I think that worker co-ops tend to be in the lead in this area. Worker ownership is a key part of any worker co-ops messaging. It immediately lets the consumer know that the store or service operates around human dignity. By creating humane and safe workplaces for its membership, worker co-ops also create humane and safe places for the consumers.

Of course, Grocery Co-ops have focused on the messaging very well and being a co-op is a core part of the store’s identity and has been long before the Year of the Co-op. The bigger hurdle for these co-ops is connecting with values and community instead of organics, now that Amazon is in the whole foods business.

Credit Unions have definitely stepped up their game and out in the west BECU has some excellent message with the slogan “BECU You Own It”. The subtlety that allows the readers to change BECU to “Because” is genius.

REI has also started adding “coop” to its name and even has a “Coop” branded bicycle and has talked about values in its decision to close on “black friday”

The marketing co-ops (Ace Hardware, Best Western, Sunskist, Dairy Queen, and Thriftway to name a few) need to do more. They have a message and a co-op story to tell. People need to see co-ops to understand how much they impact the economy and to also understand that there is almost always a co-operative alternative.

Another part of the suggestions to this goal involve getting co-ops into education. This is a slight overlap with sustainability, but very important. Creating a class curriculum on co-op economics at the high school and college levels is vital. Some groups are working on this. 1Worker:1Vote is developing a Community College curriculum. DAWI has a management training program at Rutgers. The Wisconsin Farmers Union Camp Kenwood has a worker co-op store staffed by campers who are junior high and high school age. I have always thought that it would be great for NCBA/CLUSA to develop a co-op alternative to Junior Achievement in the high schools.

Co-ops Need to Support Co-op Development

The other part of the identity goal that I want to focus on may seem a bit self-serving, but it isn’t. I have thought about this since I visited Móndragon in 2007 and learned how they controlled their capital and created development and solidarity funds. Co-ops need to commit to the development of co-operatives either through supporting financial institutions in the co-op world (National Co-op Bank, Shared Capital Cooperative, and ROC Capital) and development centers. Today, most of the co-op development work is funded through the USDA Rural Development program and provided through a community of co-op development centers. USDA funding is under constant attack regardless of the administration. Ag secretaries rarely come from the co-op community and as a result, the programs continue to be on the chopping block. Further, this funding only allows work in rural areas which is currently defined as under 50,000 and not adjacent to a community of greater than 50,000. There is little to no funding mechanism for urban development of cooperatives.

If every co-op, credit union, and insurance mutual contributed just 1% of sales to co-op development, that would amount to about $6.5 billion dollars a year to help new co-ops and existing co-ops develop. That dwarfs the current $5.8 million dollars of the Rural Cooperative Development Grant. It is a true expression of the co-op value of solidarity and the 6th principle of cooperation. We already have the infrastructure through national organizations to handle processing and distributing development funds.

The Co-op Identity is definitely stronger today than at anytime that I can remember. More people know (or at least kinda know) what a co-op is. Unfortunately, many of them don’t necessarily know that they do business with a co-op. As better as things are, there is a lot of work to be done to make this a success for the co-op decade.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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