There is so much to celebrate during National Cooperative Month in October, as the U.S. co-op business sector is generating about $650 billion in annual sales and accounts for more than 2 million jobs. But the cooperative business model remains a “best-kept secret” for far too many people who could be benefitting from membership in co-ops.
It is thus imperative that everyone involved with cooperatives make co-op education and outreach a major priority in the year ahead. That was one of the primary messages of a National Co-op Month forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Oct. 22, sponsored by the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA).
I was invited to be one of the speakers at this gathering, and I used the opportunity to issue three challenges to our nation’s cooperatives and those who work with co-ops:
- Look to forge new partnerships that can advance the cooperative sector;
- Strive to innovate, always looking for new ways to make your co-op a better resource for its members and their communities;
- Don’t be afraid to take some well-calculated risks.
There are historic opportunities for the growth of co-ops in rural America, and co-ops have a role to play in helping to improve the living conditions for the nearly one in four kids in the U.S. who lives in poverty.
Michael Beall, NCBA president, also issued three challenges geared to strengthening the co-op sector:
- Self-identify as a co-op by adopting the “.coop” Internet domain name.
- Work with your co-op boards to find new ways to achieve cross-sector collaborations, reaching out to other types of cooperatives to achieve common goals;
- “As individuals, choose to bring more co-ops into your life.” For consumers, that could mean joining a food co-op or credit union, buying co-op branded foods and other products, looking for a co-op preschool for your children, etc.
My fellow panelists and I stressed the need to get instruction about co-ops incorporated into the curriculum of more secondary schools and colleges. It is all-too common that students can earn a master’s degree in business administration without ever having been taught even the most basic concepts of the co-op business model.
Even when students do get some training in co-ops and are enthused about them, co-ops often don’t keep them in the fold. Mr. Beall cited the example of a very successful, student-run credit union at Georgetown University. But the co-op leaders usually wind up going to work for Wall Street firms, not a cooperative. Beall called the situation a “co-op brain drain.”
That said, the surging interest in local and regional foods has given birth to a new wave of cooperatives, and these are often being formed by young people, many of whom may have known little, or nothing, about co-ops in the past. Michael Beall also noted the trend of new co-op brew pubs around the nation is exposing many people in their 20s and 30s to the benefits of co-ops.
“Co-ops and beer, what could be better than that!” Beall said with a laugh.
Despite many successes in recent years, the co-op sector in America is not even close to reaching its potential. “We’re swinging below our weight,” said panelist Charles Snyder, president of National Cooperative Bank, adding that the co-op sector should be a far more powerful force in the economy than it is.