Covid-19: We need the co-op identity more than ever, says NCBA chief

Doug O’Brien, chief executive and president NCBA CLUSA, says the movement’s principles offer a ‘stabilising force’

As the world struggles to come to terms with the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, the chief executive of NCBA CLUSA, the sector body for US co-ops, says the movement needs to look to its values and principles.

Doug O’Brien, in a post on the organisation’s website, said: “The public health, policy and economic environment seem to be shifting under our feet.

“Sadly, as usual, those who are most vulnerable – both in terms of health and economic instability – are at the greatest risk. Like other communities and businesses, co-operatives are finding ways to support and serve their members, staff and the broader community.”

He added: “In times of uncertainty and crisis, most people look for stabilizing forces – polestars that orient our direction, guidelines that provide clarity, or a set of express values and principles that anchor how we engage in society. As co-operators, now more than ever we need to consider our co-operative identity—the shared values and principles that define our unique business model.”

Mr O’Brien said these values include solidarity as well as self-responsibility.

“A community has common interests and mutually supports each other,” he wrote. “The coronovirus pandemic brings focus to the notion of common interest: as a local, national and global community, we have an interest in maintaining our public health. And only if each one of us takes responsibility, will we be able to decrease the harm to society as a whole.”

He highlighted two of the co-operative principles – Cooperation among Cooperatives, and Concern for Community, as crucial to weathering the Covid-19 outbreak.

Giving the example of loan fund Shared Capital Cooperative, which is making emergency loans available to co-ops and offering payment relief to current borrowers who are struggling with payments, he said: “This is Principle Six in action”.

Related: How the co-op movement has stepped up to the crisis

Meanhile, Principle Seven, Concern for Community, shows up in the response from Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, a grocery in Maryland which is experiencing historic sales and shoppers stock up.

“The co-op looked outward to what it could do to help the community and made donations to local food pantries and other community-based organisations.”

Mr O’Brien also noted measures by electric co-ops to help customers struggling to pay bills during the Covid-19 shutdown.

He added: “On a more national scale, the Cooperative Development Fund administers a Disaster Recovery Fund that, in the past, has accepted dollars from the co-operative community to assist others who have suffered from disasters. The Cooperative Development Foundation is looking at how it can most effectively deploy this fund to help co-ops address the unique circumstances surrounding the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Related: Co-ops UK looks at the government’s rescue package

Last week, NCBA CLUSA launched a microsite on COVID-19 resources for the co-operative business community and held a webinar to help co-op prepare for business disruption.

He told members: “In the coming days, we look forward to expanding the site to lift up ways co-operatives are acting on the principles of co-operation among co-operatives and concern for community.”

US co-ops can share their story by emailing NCBA CLUSA at [email protected] with the subject line Principles At Work.