“The main problem facing cooperatives is that too many people still don’t understand how they operate and why they are different,” says Steve Thomas, executive director of the Cooperative Development Foundation, which provides seed money and counsel to start-up co-ops.
“If we get our message out, there will be a big future ahead for cooperatives,” he adds. Read More >
There also are clouds, notes Cornell University cooperative expert Brain Henehan. He ticks off a big issue: “Everybody’s time is at a premium,” and that raises the difficulty in attracting members to serve on the boards of directors that are vital to the proper functioning of cooperatives. But smart cooperatives know this and they are working hard to attract more members to service because that truly is a key to the cooperative difference.
That’s just a bump in the road, however. Most experts see smooth growth for cooperatives in the years ahead. “We have an extensive cooperative development program, and new ones keep starting,” says Paul Hazen of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). “Cooperatives spring from the ground organically. We are seeing an explosion in interest. The same model applies to so many industries.”
Hazen cites just one case in point: the growth of many cooperatives for roofers, formed with the aim of putting quality roofing materials into the hands of those who install them, at prices that allow them to compete against big box stores that lately have expanded into providing services. When small businesses band together they indeed find they can compete, and it is difficult to envision this without cooperatives. “Cooperatives are a very flexible business model, that’s why there will always be more,” says Hazen.
“Based on history we will see many, many new cooperatives formed in response to the global financial crisis,” predicts Hazen, who points to the start-up of innumerable cooperatives during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In bad times, people just seem to see what’s good about cooperation.
Importantly, too, the cooperative model just may bring more prosperity to parts of the world that desperately need it. John Dunn, an executive with NCBA, has worked for some years in spreading cooperatives internationally and, he says, there is bright progress to report, particularly with regard to agricultural cooperatives, in countries like Mozambique, East Timor, Angola – places that need hope and, in cooperatives, people are finding reasons to be optimistic as a cooperative may be just the vehicle that lets small farmers working tiny plots of land compete.
Just think about that: cooperatives bring power to the people and maybe, in today’s flat earth world, the tools that are bringing better lives to many in the United States will be exported to developing countries that need to kick-start economic development.
Bottomline: Is a cooperative a magic bullet? Nope, says Henehan – “but in some economic situations it is a very, very good solution. It’s not a cure-all, it does take work. But in the right cases, it’s a very good answer.”
“Cooperatives,” he adds, “have a very bright future.”