Whatever happened to the International Summit of Cooperatives?

Tony Patterson, from Co-op Canada Accelerator, investigates the fate of the high-profile Quebec event

The year 2012 was a very good one for co-ops; it is still known among co-operators as IYC.

In New York the United Nations declared the International Year of Co-operatives; in Belgium the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) published a Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade. In Italy the inaugural edition of the World Co-operative Monitor was published by the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises (Euricse).

And in Canada, financial giant Desjardins co-hosted the biggest blowout the co-op sector had ever seen, the four-day International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec City.

The ICA, formed in 1895, is at the apex of the worldwide co-operative movement. At its head in 2012 was Dame Pauline Green.

The Blueprint was meant to stir the troops to take the co-operative message to the wider community. To provide evidence for co-op evangelists, the ICA helped launch the annual World Co-operative Monitor. Its seventh edition in 2018 surveyed more than 2,500 organisations worldwide. More than 1,100 of them had turnover above US$100m in 2016.

The Blueprint and the Monitor cost a pretty penny between them. Money is scarce at the apex of co-operatives, where there is a strong tendency always to look for ways to spend less. But whatever the costs of the Blueprint and the Monitor, they paled in comparison with the Quebec Summit. If IYC was the crowning of the global co-op movement, the Summit – a showcase for its achievements and potential – was its crown jewel.

The Summit took two years to organise, featured more than 150 speakers, published 44 academic papers in a 665-page book, and sponsored nine studies considered “groundbreaking” because so few studies of co-operatives had ever been done. Two thirds of the studies were presented by the four top international consulting firms, McKinsey, PwC, Deloitte and E&Y.

Related: The opening of the first international summit

There would be dozens of corporate contributors to the Summit. The federal and Quebec governments each kicked in CA$1m. But the chief organiser and biggest backer by far was Desjardins Group, the sixth largest financial institution in Canada with assets over CA$275bn. The CEO of Desjardins in 2012 was Monique Leroux. She created the Summit, she said, to show the world that co-operatives can work for both people and profit. It wasn’t going to be just another conference. “It has to be not just good, but emotionally positive – there has to be a taste to come back.”

Ms Leroux and Dame Pauline made a joint presentation of a statement from the Quebec Summit to the UN at a ceremony in New York to conclude ICY. Costs estimated at CA$10m were recovered to some extent from sponsorships and participation fees but a substantial deficit was covered by Desjardins.

It was evident that the Quebec Summit had a ring to it and could grow to mean something significant within the global co-op movement. A successful second Summit had potential to develop into a Davos-like forum for co-ops.

A platform for the movement

Despite the CA$1,700 entrance fee, let alone travel and hotel costs, the second Quebec Summit in October 2014 attracted 3,000 participants from over 90 countries. A third edition, by then described in the literature as a “bi-annual event and a central organising force in the international co-operative movement” was held 11-13 October 2016. It was another sell-out, with “more than 3,000” participants from 113 countries, boosting awareness and providing a high level forum for co-operation globally among co-operators.

Related: Co-op News reports from the 2016 Summit

By this third iteration, the Quebec Summit was doing better than break even. Costs had been contained while revenues were maintained. The Summit had won a reputation as a go-to event for the co-op establishment and had an established client base. It had a functioning team, profit in reserve and a lively prospect list.

The ICA was still an official sponsor and Monique Leroux was still in charge, although she was no longer CEO of Desjardins. After two terms in that office retirement is mandatory – she was now president of the ICA, replacing Dame Pauline, who had retired.

When she took office at the ICA there were already discussions under way for “an overarching solution that could bring together several co-operative initiatives”. These a included a proposal for an International Co-operative Center (ICC) “to launch the co-op business world to another level.” Ms Leroux would champion this notion, and add a critical component. To give it a push and substance, ICC would embed the Quebec Summit – and capitalise on its tools, team, and contacts.

The ICC would have a number of activities and roles – to advance B2B marketing among co-ops, conduct syndicated research, and create a networking platform and programmes. It would have global reach and speak to the interests of the Top 300 in the World Monitor and those that aspire to get there, including many of the 3,000 participants crowding the Quebec Summit every two years.

Even before the proposal was ready for the ICA board, Ms Leroux was pitching the concept at the highest levels. Connections in Canada were good enough that two-thirds of the $30m in projected start-up costs for the ICC was soon pledged by governments. A grant of CA$5m was under negotiation with the city of Montreal. Ms Leroux would soon report CA$1.5m in confirmed commitments for ICC from “private partners, mostly co-ops,” with another CA$3m “of declared interest”.

Hitting the buffers

The Summit now was incorporated in the Center. Or was the Center a creation of the Summit? It wasn’t entirely clear. The draft 42-page business case for the ICC circulated on 11 September 2017 had logos for both the Alliance and the Summit.

But just a week before, on 5 September, Ms Leroux had announced she would not be putting her name forward again for the ICA presidency, a decision she said she was making “for important personal and family reasons”.

The ICA annual meeting was held in Malaysia in 2017. On 13 November the retiring board met in Kuala Lumpur to hear an upbeat presentation about ICC from the outgoing president, including reaffirmation that Canadian governments had committed over CA$20m.

But on 17 November the incoming board met with the new president, Ariel Guarco of Argentina. ICC was not mentioned. There wouldn’t be another ICA board meeting until January 2018. That would be too late.

Among the footnotes of the ICC proposal is this caveat: “The Canadian public funding comes with the following expectations: that the ICC is headquartered in Montreal and that a public announcement is made in November/early December 2017.”

In a letter addressed to Mr Guarco on 27 February 2018, Ms Leroux wrote, “I regret to inform you that we will not be going forward with the Center at this time”.

She added: “Despite the will of the governments of Quebec and Canada and the city of Montreal to proceed,” not all the conditions for launch were in place.

As for the Quebec Summit, “You will appreciate that this [decision] … compromises future editions of the International Summit of Co-operatives since their funding was partly included in the financing [for the Center]”.

In a follow-up letter dated 5 March, Ms Leroux confirmed that the Summit was no more.

In her ICA resignation letter she wrote: “Due to some very particular personal circumstances, I am forced to limit my activities outside Canada.”

Did she have any inkling that the Summit was going to implode as soon as she departed? She vehemently denies it, insisting until the day she stepped away that more than two thirds the required start-up capital for ICC was committed.

But she also knew a large chunk of the commitment was time sensitive. The Canadian government, for reasons inscrutable, required an announcement of ICC by early December. When the new board with a new president didn’t take it up at its initial meeting in November, the writing was on the wall.

Ms Leroux’s letter cancelling the Center says “not all conditions for launch were in place.” But she specifies only one unmet condition: “a timely commitment by the International Co-operative Alliance”. The chance to solidify that commitment fell between regimes over four days in November. The outgoing president failed to bring a vote. The incoming president failed to take it up in time.

And the ICA’s perspective? A spokesperson for the organisation said that “both organisations found the Summit was not viable any more.”

Desjardins’ Maxime Richard said that the organisation did “not wish to comment further at the moment”.

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