Editorial: Rediscovering the common purpose of co-ops

Is our lack of co-operation stymieing the growth of our movement? Do we need to rediscover our common purpose?

At this month’s International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec, many outsiders to our co-operative world told us to think smarter, be more collaborative and work better together to strengthen our values and principles – and our competitive edge.

Our biggest mistake is that we do not co-operate enough, said Yves Morieux from the Boston Consulting Group. We were also warned that we were running the risk of not being innovative enough.

Shareholder companies are already realising that being ethical can go hand in hand with maximising shareholder profits. Mark Kramer from consultants FSG talked delegates through a number of examples of private firms working for the greater good, while also maximising profits.

Nestle is seen by many as an unethical company – indeed Ethical Consumer rates it as one of the most unethical companies. But its work in the World Cocoa Foundation, helping farmers out of poverty and improving livelihoods, goes against that notion.

It’s great that some philanthropic companies can take a medium-to-long-term view and take responsibility within the markets that help make their products. But the co-operative difference means those profits are not taken for personal gain, but are distributed back to members.

What do we learn from this? If co-operatives want to bring change to the rest of the world, then much more will be achieved when working together.

Take the refugee crisis across Europe, for example. Is it beyond the realms of possibility for co-ops working in housing, energy and food to team up to provide refugees with essential living items and assistance with employment?

Such opportunities may pass co-ops by because sudden events require easy access to capital. And, as we heard at the Summit, capital is the conundrum that apparently plagues co-ops and can halt growth.

This brings us over to the work of the International Co-operative Alliance’s Blue Ribbon Commission. A group of influential co-operators from some of the top co-ops in the world have been brought together to figure out how co-ops can access capital.

Many large co-operatives are cash-rich – but the problem lies with small-to-medium sized co-ops, which need capital to grow, but do not want to jeopardise their governance to outside investors.

The World Co-operative Monitor this week showed that the capital problem is not obvious in the co-ops it examined. It only chose a small subset of 220 – but the balance sheets showed that many co-ops are self-financing.

It seems obvious that the small-to-medium sized co-ops are the ones that need access to capital. UK-based mutual think-tank Mutuo is working on a plan to solve this problem. It has launched an idea that is hoped to take off in the next 12 months: a way to provide capital to co-ops and mutuals through a circular fund that allows co-ops to invest and receive investment.

Quick access to capital may make co-operatives more reactive. And when you look at our commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we are much more likely to make an impact on these goals by having ready access to cash, to help shape the co-op model to be the solution to the world’s problems.