During my travels around the country visiting with co-ops in all sectors in both rural and urban settings I continue to marvel at the good work being done on behalf of the members. I see this amazing business model that:
- Allows family farmers to do what they love through co-ops like Cabot, Organic Valley and Welch’s
- Gives small businesses the ability to stay small and thrive through purchasing co-ops like True Value and Carpet One and many others that you never heard of because they chose not to develop a brand
- Brought electricity and telecommunications to where there once was none and continues to serve their communities
- Has brought true workplace democracy through co-ops like Equal Exchange and Isthmus engineering
- Makes housing affordable in high priced markets like New York City or allows the elderly to stay in their community in rural Minnesota
- Helps people in the dawn of life through childcare co-ops or making life’s end more dignified and affordable through funeral care co-ops
- Seeks to make health care more accessible and affordable
- Brings credit and financial services through credit unions to people banks have turned away
So why then does this amazing business model continue to languish at the periphery of the US economy and political discourse? After years of work and countless conversations I have settled on two core problems: Education & Capital. There is no Eureka! moment here. Many others have had similar observations, the real question is what we want and what we can do about it.
Let’s focus on education first. (I will revisit the Capital issue in a future post.) Can you remember the first time you heard about cooperatives? I am going to guess it wasn’t in school. That is because with very limited exception we don’t teach about co-ops in grade school, middle school, high school or at the university level.
Yet we know many co-ops have close connections to schools and universities in their communities. Are we leveraging those relationships in a manner that could get co-ops included as part of the curriculum? Co-op curriculums are available at all levels of education.
There is no reliable data on the exact amount of scholarships and donations to educational institutions co-ops disburse every year, (research project anyone?). A conservative estimate would place it around $50 million annually. Those ten $1,000 scholarships that so many co-ops hand out really do add up. What if we decided to require that any scholarship had to be used to further cooperative education?
Let’s imagine that all the co-ops in say Wisconsin got together (they are already together through an organization called the Cooperative Network), realizing that collectively they are giving a million dollars in scholarships every year. The Cooperative Network approaches all the universities in Wisconsin and says we have $1 million dollars in scholarships we are giving away but the students are required to use the funds to study cooperatives. Do you think the schools would respond favorably knowing there is a built in pipeline of students for the course?
Now suppose instead of $1,000 scholarships which really don’t even cover one credit hour at most universities we made them $3,000 scholarships and said to every student that receives one and gets a B or better in the co-op class that we will hire them as summer intern. We create our own pipeline of potential new employees. Recycle our co-op wealth and knowledge instead of letting it leak out of the bowl.
We speak a lot about the next generation workforce and seek to help them prepare for careers. Why can’t we focus on creating the next generation with a cooperative purpose?
This article was originally published on Co-op Water Cooler