2019 Q&A: Doug O’Brien on the USA

President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association/CLUSA International

How was 2019 for NCBA CLUSA and the US co-op sector in general?

In 2019, we saw this co-operative moment come into focus – meaning we are again living in a time when more and more people feel disconnected from their businesses and communities. This is a time when co-ops are even more relevant as people-centred, participatory, community-owned businesses. As a result, we have seen increased interest in the business model and growing support with federal policy makers – including the
re-establishment of the Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus and some significant legislative wins. 

How did NCBA CLUSA make a difference in 2019?

At NCBA CLUSA, our job over the past 103 years continues to be the work of increasing the influence and impact of co-operatives. With the work we do in advocacy and public awareness, we have provided tools for co-ops to tell their story more effectively, such as the ABCs of Cooperative Impact that provides standardised metrics on how to measure impact across sectors. 

We have improved the policy environment with work in Main Street Employee Ownership Act, protected funding for co-op development, and provided in-depth analysis with the Cooperative Business Journal. We have expanded the cross-sector Cooperative IMPACT Conference to share best practices and elevating the impact co-operatives have on the social and financial economies. 

As we geared up for the upcoming presidential election here in the US, NCBA CLUSA wrote an open letter addressed to Republican and Democratic candidates running in the 2020 Presidential Election, asking them to recognize the co-operative business model as a tool for the economic success and self-determination of their constituents. Since then a number of those candidates expressly included co-operatives in their platforms.

What challenges do you see coming in 2020 and how is NCBA CLUSA preparing for them?

One familiar challenge is making sure more people understand the co-op difference. In some ways, this challenge becomes even more acute with the battle for attention and the increasing presence of different kinds of non-traditional business models. A newer challenge – actually, I think of it more as an opportunity – is how to ensure that people understand and use the
co-operative business model in the knowledge-based, big data economy. There is huge potential to empower more people to own, control, and benefit from their own data. If we don’t capture some of that potential in the next few years, we risk being marginalised in the future economy. 

Finally, co-ops have an opportunity to play a much larger role in building a more inclusive economy that will help address inequality and other pressing global challenges. By practicing co-operative principles six and seven, we can continue to increase the positive impact of co-operatives on individuals, families and communities both here in the US and around the world.