A wide variety of co-operative support organisations are starting to come together with help from national co-op body NCBA CLUSA.
The Washington D.C. based organisation is big on national and international development work for the sector, but it is now focusing its attention on helping grassroots bodies – or local ‘co-operative business associations’.
NCBA provides a boost for self-starting groups that often have met for years, but may lack the energy to provide a clear value proposition to their members by offering to help employ staff.
This offers an infusion of national-level support for local groups while they can maintain their autonomy and variety.
NCBA is currently in touch with approximately 30 local groups, from Seattle, Wash. to western Massachusetts. Cooperative business associations have been formally established in Austin, Texas and Philadelphia. While each CBA is different, the emerging model features a director who reports to a local board as well as to Pat Brownell Sterner, NCBA’s chief operating officer. These staff are employees of NCBA, receiving benefits and back-office support at the national level so they can focus on building their local effort.
Ms Brownell Sterner points to market surveys as one need shared by new associations, which must ensure that their services will match what local co-ops actually need. Such research is often labor-intensive and follow-up on decisions made can be difficult for a new group without a staff budget – a common problem for start-up co-operatives.
“We get it. We have a volunteer board too,” she said of NCBA. “It all sounds great in the meeting, but then we all go home and have 50 million things to do.”
NCBA has its own interest in the launching of local networks, which will boost the number of co-ops already connecting with the movement as a whole. Ms Brownell Sterner hopes that such growth will build NCBA’s membership and political voice.
The seeds for the Austin Cooperative Business Alliance were planted at a local summit hosted by ACBA’s predecessor, the Austin Cooperative Think Tank, which had been meeting since 2010.
The summit, held in January of 2013, was originally envisioned as a celebration of the International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. However, the event took a bit longer to organise than originally planned, and its date was not all that would last beyond that celebratory year. Among the attendees was NCBA’s new president and CEO Mike Beall – hired late in 2012 after a year of leadership transition at NCBA.
Brian Donovan, who was serving as membership and general administrator for the giant housing co-op, Inter-Cooperative Council at the University of Texas in Austin, recalled, “at the end of the summit, Beall got up and said ‘I think it’s time for NCBA to help staff this organisation up,’ which was, needless to say, exciting.”
NCBA committed $50,000 on the condition that Austin’s co-ops could match it. By June, the co-ops had raised $46,000 and after what Mr Donovan described as “quite a bit of haggling,” a deal was struck. The job was posted and Donovan was chosen to fill the position. ACBA is currently a wholly-owned subsidiary of NCBA but will incorporate as a Texas trade association at the end of this summer.
Ms Brownell Sterner describes her role with Mr Donovan, as well as others who will fill CBA positions, as one of mentoring more than control.
And NCBA has shown substantial openness to local ideas in setting up the agreements with the second CBA in Philadelphia. Bob Noble, a steering committee member for the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance reported a level of flexibility that eased any early concerns about PACA’s relationship with NCBA.
“We wanted to make sure they weren’t going to control us,” he said. “But they weren’t trying to control us. I think we reached a high degree of agreement.”
Mr Noble recalled that a delegation of NCBA staff – including Mr Beall – attended a PACA meeting and social event in March of 2013.
“They were checking us out,” he said. “They listened and then they told us their thinking and strategy.”
The new executive director, which Mr Noble expects to be hired during August, will be accountable to the board of PACA. He said: “They’ll also report to the COO (of NCBA) but that’s more or less a formality, as far as I can tell.”
An evolving model
With two associations already launched, NCBA continues to work with groups including the Portland Project for Cooperative Innovation, which describes itself as “an informal networking and education initiative.” pdxPCI has been meeting since early 2012 and is still considering whether to formally join with NCBA.
NCBA has helped us by providing a CBA assessment they’ve used for other cities,” said Theresa Hilinski, one of four core organisers of pdxPCI. “We’re still evaluating what a more formalised group would look like, and if it is even a CBA.”
But what is a CBA? Philadelphia and Austin’s experiences suggest a high degree of flexibility. “They sent us a memorandum of understanding outlining the relationship between NCBA and PACA. We changed a lot but they agreed to pretty much all of it,” said Mr Noble.
A similar process unfolded in creating the job description. NCBA first proposed something more professional in nature, while PACA was more concerned with how well a candidate would be able to organise the community.
“We suggested even more radical changes and they agreed with everything,” Mr Noble said. He recalled wondering if NCBA might press PACA to become PCBA, but the flexibility has extended to letting go of uniform naming that would have allowed more obvious marketing connections to a new service that NCBA offers.
“We said we wanted to keep our name,” he said. “And they said ‘OK’.”
Meeting local needs
NCBA director of co-operative development Tom Decker is leading NCBA’s development of relationships with potential CBAs. He described the groups with which he is working as greatly varied, depending on what is needed in that location.
“These are all bottom-up grassroots programs,” said Mr Decker. “The work and direction they take is their own, and you have 30 groups going in 30 different directions.”
For example, ACBA has had significant early success with local advocacy with the City of Austin. ACBA been pushing for city economic programs to better support co-ops, whose multiple owners’ aggregate net worth can sometimes disqualify their enterprise from city support. A 12 June resolution, passed unanimously, asks for ACBA to work with city staff to create a report identifying how the city can support co-operatives.
While ACBA is leaving development work to Cooperation Texas, another Austin-based group, Noble describes PACA as an urban co-op development center as well as an association. PACA also has a different advocacy focus as their Representative to Congress, Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) has emerged as a champion of co-ops at the national level.
This diversity may prove to be a challenge as the CBAs multiply. And Noble sees a need for more connections to other groups through regular encounters.
“The last time I saw (Donovan) was last September, and I’m curious to see his experience,” he said.
Mr Decker recognises that NCBA’s support is not for everyone, and so he is careful not to push the many local and regional associations with which he is working. He emphasised the need for local energy, with NCBA providing support where there is already momentum.
“Some groups may be on the fence about whether they want to move forward,” Mr Decker said. “If we don’t hear from them again, that’s fine. I’ll check back in, but there’s no kind of pressure at all.”