Big and old co-operatives are underutilised in two ways: as arenas for ordinary people to exercise democratic control over the economic system; and as vehicles to nurture new and small co-operatives to expand democratic control into more areas of the economy. Member participation is too often lacking; turnout in elections is low and member resolutions are rare. Meanwhile, smaller and newer co-operatives too often perceive the old giants as distant and uninterested.
While colleagues at established societies can do much to address this, we believe change should be sparked by grassroots member activity. For this reason, we (Iwan, Leo and a third co-founder, Christian Shaw) have launched Members For Cooperation, a global network to organise ordinary members within co-ops to campaign for increased co-operation between co-operatives – the sixth principle of the movement – especially between the larger/older co-ops and the smaller/newer ones. The potential is huge. For example, if the Nationwide Building Society had invested 1% of its statutory profits into new co-operatives in 2019, it could have made an investment of more than £55,000 into every single co-op started that year in the UK.
We are looking to revitalise mechanisms of member democracy. This could mean putting forward a member resolution or endorsing candidates in board elections. Instead of creating conflict between members and management, we hope to come up with constructive proposals that are modest and reasonable. Instead of blaming co-operatives for not doing enough, we hope to compile examples of principle six past and present.
Bringing co-operators around the world together to share examples and develop new ideas is one of the core activities for the organisation, alongside organising to implement, replicate and scale these practices.
Co-operation between co-ops is most common among those in the same industry. A great example is CO-OP Financial Services, a US service organisation set up as a co-op and co-owned by credit unions across 50 states, operating one of the largest ATM networks in the country.
But too often co-ops operate in silos rather than co-operating across sectors, and we want to challenge this – and there are some great examples to follow. For example, many agricultural cooperatives have a strong relationship with the consumer-owned grocery co-operatives that sell their goods and the co-operative banks that finance them. A more specific example is VME, a worker-owned co-operative that provides point-of-sale software for most independent retail co-operatives in the UK.
We believe great potential lies in well-established co-operatives, operating in sectors where co-operatives are common, nurturing new co-ops in fields where they are yet to gain a foothold. This is especially the case when it comes to emerging industries – for example, co-ops could easily switch from Zoom to The Online Meeting Cooperative.
Related: An ethical co-op alternative to Zoom
In the US, several well-established co-operatives supported the creation of Start Coop, an accelerator programme for unique and innovative early-stage co-ops. The first cohort included eight co-ops that were given mentoring and a no-strings-attached grant of $10,000 each.
One of the ventures, Savvy Cooperative, an online platform owned by its users who earn money or gift cards by taking part in medical research projects, went on to become the first co-op in US history to receive venture capital investment. Another, a conglomerate of worker co-ops called Obran, also made history by acquiring a conventional company and converting it into a worker co-operative – another US first. The programme is being repeated and has recently accepted a new cohort of co-operatives. Eventually, successful co-operatives from the programme will help fund future programmes.
What is the aim of Members for Cooperation?
The inaugural campaign of Members For Cooperation put forward a member resolution to the AGMs of the Co-op Group and Nationwide Building Society to replicate a similar accelerator programme in the UK, which would require a diminishingly small portion of their surplus. While we did not achieve enough signatures to put our resolution on the ballot at either AGM, it was never our expectation or the main goal. We had over 100 ordinary members join us, which makes future campaigns easier. We want a series of simultaneous campaigns to build a shared list of ordinary members that share the desire for co-operation between co-operatives.
Members For Cooperation will also generate new ideas through discussions on how co-ops can best work together for mutual benefit. For example, we have established a fund to help credit unions give out gift cards, coupons, and vouchers that can be used with other co-operatives. It’s not uncommon for credit unions to offer their members discounts and gift cards on a range of businesses – what Members For Cooperation wants is to see this work with local co-operatives.
Hopefully, we will see this fund be used for the first time soon to support a new early-stage tool-sharing co-operative in Rhode Island, PVD Things. Our goal is to approach local credit unions that could receive support from the fund to give out gift cards that could be used to rent tools from PVD things to their members who take out home improvement loans.
Eventually, we hope credit unions will experiment with general “Cooperative Gift Cards” that can be used in a range of co-operatives. Compared to top-down grant funding, this finance mechanism would see support allocated by members based on the ability of co-ops to offer the goods and services they need.
We’re certain there are better ideas out there but the most important thing is to bring co-operators together to systematically think about proposals to put principle six into action.
The organisation will be democratically governed, and we will be deciding on governance structures in the next month with the 100+ people who have already joined.
If you want to be part of that conversation or just follow our work as an observer, you can find out more at members4cooperation.org.