Can the co-operative difference be measured?
According to both academics and co-op practitioners attending this week's Co-operating for Change in the International Year of Co-operatives conference in Montreal, the answer is an absolute yes. And the results of those measurements can be used to make the case for co-ops with consumers, policy-makers and other stakeholders.
Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a University of Maryland economist who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Saskatchewan's Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, and Leslie Brown, a sociology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, are working with Canadian credit unions and retail co-operatives respectively to develop new measurement tools. Their research is part of a five-year, $1 million collaboration between the Canadian Co-operative Association and four Canadian universities: the Measuring the Co-operative Difference Research Network.
Speaking on a panel entitled "Measuring and reporting on the co-operative difference", Dr. Nembhard outlined the wide range of indicators she is using to measure just about every aspect of credit union activity, from financial transparency to the extent to which credit unions are involved in community economic development.
"We need to measure more than just the financials," she said. "We need to expand the notion of impacts and how to measure them -- a full panoply of co-operative outcomes."
Dr. Brown has been working with Co-op Atlantic, a network of retail grocery co-operatives in Canada's four Atlantic provinces, to pilot the use of a "co-operative sustainability and planning scorecard": a tool aimed at providing measurable benchmarks for economic, social and evironmental performance, as well as adherence to the co-operative principles. Like the measurement tool for credit unions, the scorecard looks at a wide range of indicators from member engagement to environmental sustainability practices.
But academics aren't the only ones developing measurement tools for co-operatives. Marie-Paule Robichaud, a researcher with Quebec's co-operative umbrella organization, the Conseil québécois de la coopération et de la mutualité (CQCM), talked about her organization's efforts to measure such things as environmental sustainability and community impact.
Canadian co-op developer Peter Hough has developed a measurement tool specifically for worker co-operatives. The tool assesses co-ops on the basis of four main factors: organizational maturity, organizational trust, co-operative values and co-operative principles.
Another co-op developer on the panel, Russ Christianson, has also worked on a scorecard for co-operatives. He said it's important that co-operatives measure more than just their financial bottom line.
"We need to measure the things that are important to us as co-operatives, then let people know why these things are important," he said.
For more information about the Measuring the Co-operative Difference Research Network, go to www.cooperativedifference.coop.