In an age of growing corporate mistrust, shattered personal savings, and crushing special interests, where can one place their trust in business these days? The answer is simple. It’s been around for 165 years so it’s proven, and it works in just about every context, from delivering electricity to rural families in centuries-old adobe homes in northern New Mexico through making award winning cheese, a cheddar that most rank among the world’s best. The word to know is this: cooperative and, in co-ops, farmers become owners, shoppers become owners, even electricity customers become owners of the utility that brings the juice to them. “Co-ops are about service, first, not profits,” says Steve Thomas, executive director of the Cooperative Development Foundation, which provides seed money and counsel to start-up co-ops.
Cooperatives are never about Wall Street, they are always about Main Street. Read More >
“It’s a movement,” says Glenn English, chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a voice in Washington, DC for the hundreds of generally small electric utilities that are member owned. English’s point: cooperatives are not just another way to do business, they are a dramatically different way to do business.
What’s stunning about cooperatives is how big they are, how they already are intertwined with our lives. Cooperatives hold about $3 trillion in assets, according to Brent Hueth, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin. Many rank among household brands – Ocean Spray, True Value, Welchs, Sunkist, and many others. These are brands Americans already know and trust, even if they do not know – and many don’t – that these are all cooperative businesses that are determined to do business a different, better way.
Cooperatives also may be just the solution for the present economically-troubled times, where many of us question why Wall Street bankers whose companies fail nonetheless collect multi-million dollar bonuses, and shareholders in other companies prosper just at the very time when thousands of employees are fired.
“We are seeing an explosion of interest in cooperatives – the time is very right,” says Paul Hazen, CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), a group dedicated to representing the interests of cooperatives in Washington, DC. “Our challenge is to help more people see the value of co-operation, how this system produces benefits for everybody.”
“The most meaningful thing about being in a cooperative in an era of corporate greed is that we are the epitome of democracy,” says Roberta MacDonald, an executive with Cabot Creamery, a farmer-owned business. Read More >
“Everything we do is transparent, it’s all open to member and public view, and we believe this is the better business model.” She adds – in an echo of English – “everybody who works at Cabot believes they are on a mission.”
And that mission is to deliver a better product, a better way. “The average customer – the average member-owner – can genuinely influence the direction of the typical cooperative,” says Thomas. That cannot be said about too many other types of businesses, which, increasingly, seem remote and alien to many customers and workers.
“When small businesses band together into a cooperative they can compete with anyone,” says John Dunn, an executive with NCBA. Read More >
Jamie Johnson, public affairs manager for Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative owned by its 1300 members, adds: “We are about preserving the family farm – that’s our mission.”
Lots of Americans also know that cooperatives work. Some 120 million Americans belong to one cooperative or another, says NCBA. Total co-op membership is about 350 million (with many belonging to two or more). More quick facts:
* 30 percent of all farm products are produced through cooperatives
* 90 million Americans belong to credit unions, a type of cooperative
* The top 100 co-ops generate $150 billion in revenues.
* In the US alone there are an estimated 72,000 cooperatives, per NCBA.
It’s not just the US, incidentally. In Canada, one in three people belongs to a co-op. In Kenya, one in five. In Norway, one in three. Around the world, some 100 million jobs have been created by cooperatives, reports the International Cooperative Alliance.
“Cooperatives don’t make anyone rich,” adds Hueth – but they do deliver benefits to many millions, from products they could not otherwise readily purchase through fair, honest rates paid to savers at credit unions or to farmers delivering fluid milk to Cabot Creamery.
Keep on reading because the more we know about cooperatives, the more we believe that this an ideal way to solve just about any problem, from the how-to of delivering high-speed Internet to rural New Mexico through providing affordable, quality housing that working people can afford in some of New York City’s trendiest neighborhoods. Cooperatives do all that, and much more, and discovering just how much cooperatives already are doing is a short course in optimism at a time when many minds drift into pessimism. Believe it can happen, because somewhere, a cooperative probably already is doing it, well and transparently and in ways that benefit just about every stakeholder.