Incubation helps new co-ops bloom

Prospera has had a busy autumn, broadening and deepening its incubation-based development model. The Oakland-based organization hosted a national convening on co-op incubation and then launched a new...

Prospera has had a busy autumn, broadening and deepening its incubation-based development model.

The Oakland-based organization hosted a national convening on co-op incubation and then launched a new intensive training program for prospective socias in a new type of co-op that will produce and sell paletas, a Latin American style of popsicle. The nonprofit also launched a new website and changed its name from Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security, or WAGES, to better reflect its mission bringing prosperity to immigrant women.

In recent years the U.S. has seen a growth in nonprofits deploying worker-owned co-ops as a means of addressing poverty and inequality. After nearly two decades creating worker owned co-ops among immigrants, Prospera has emerged as a leader in this budding field.

In October, Prospera launched an innovative training program to launch an expansion beyond housecleaning services, an industry in which the nonprofit has started five co-ops throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

Prospera is now midway through this new “Learning Investment.” Participants meet two evenings a week, and the energy they put into learning will help ensure that Prospera has strong candidates who understand the incubation model and their roles as owners. The 6-week program will help 11 latina participants decide whether to apply as founding members of a new cooperative.

In addition to deepening the advance training available to prospective co-owners, Prospera is also finding outside support as it enters an entirely new industry. For food industry expertise, Prospera is partnering with food entrepreneurship incubator La Cocina. A co-op developer and a business developer will work in tandem.

Spreading the Model

The Learning Investment program follows on the heels of the “Readiness Institute” held in September, which attracted 30 attendees from 22 organizations, as far away as Baltimore.

Elena Fairley, Prospera’s field building and communications manager, assembled a packed two-day schedule filled with nearly as many presenters as attendees; a full dozen organizations provided presenters and panelists.

The ambitious lineup tapped into the Bay Area’s deep pool of worker cooperative expertise, including technical assistance providers like the Democracy at Work Network and the Sustainable Economies Law Center as well as established co-ops like the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives and Rainbow Grocery.

Democracy at Work Network executive director Melissa Hoover identified a spectrum of development to provide context for in incubation model.

On one end of the spectrum Hoover described a group of people with a shared need organizing organically. She called this model “DIY” (do-it-yourself).

Self-starting is the dominant model. It is used by co-op developers such as Cooperation Works!, a national cooperative of development centers whose foundational Madison Principles include that an “enthusiastic group of local, trustworthy leaders is a prerequisite for providing technical assistance.”

The Prospera model, on the other hand, is part of what Hoover called a “build and recruit” incubation approach.

The Institute presented different models from around the Bay Area, including that developed by Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, which uses an approach with some similarities to that of Prospera’s but also some differences. While Prospera relies on donors, Arizmendi’s funding streams primarily from the five bakery co-ops already created.

Arizmendi cooperative developer Tim Huet gave an abbreviated overview of the process used by this group as well as the structure by which the developers remain accountable to the whole system. He admitted that the Arizmendi framework involved too much information to convey in the course of a short introduction.

“We are trying to do something in an hour that usually takes a couple of days,” said Mr Huet in his presentation. “The learning experience takes years and that’s the fun thing about it.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – the dense information load, participants gave the event high marks: “I learned that there is a lot of interest in this model in communities that lack access to the resources necessary to build a co-op,” said Ms Fairley. “Arizmendi and (Prospera) presented complementary approaches to this method – and participants identified these models as some of the best parts of the Institute.”

Ms Fairley reported that more than 90 percent of evaluations received indicated that attendees learned whether they were ready to help incubate co-ops, and to plan for the next steps of their efforts in this field.

Education All Around

Attendee Courtney Berner is a cooperative development specialist for the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, who is also an individual member of Cooperation Works! She also found that the event helped her understand how the WAGES model differed from the more traditional process of outside developers supporting self-launched groups of co-op members.

“It’s a totally different game,” Ms Berner said. “(The Institute) definitely confirmed my suspicion that doing one doesn’t mean you can do the other.”

And Sheena Foster, executive director of Workers Interfaith Network, came away with new ideas for a women’s collective she is currently developing in Memphis, Tenn. She said that the institute came at just the right time for this new effort that launched during the summer.

“I’m going to go back and do a course correction,” she said. “We’ve been winging it, but it’s early enough that we can go back and make adjustments.”

The incubated model of co-op development relatively new, but Prospera is now planting seeds across the country. Each will each learn its own lessons and share them through connections made at the Institute, which also provided the hosts with a better understanding of their fast-growing community of practice.

Ms Fairley saw the Institute as a step along a path of discerning what Prospera can contribute to the field of co-op incubation.

“We hope to continue the conversation with participants and provide more resources in the future,” she said.

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