Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

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Co-Operatives: A Business Model with Heart

I first encountered the idea of a co-op as a freshman at University of Maryland. The Maryland Food Collective operated an on-campus food co-op, which looked a lot like a health food store. Signs there stated that it was “worker owned” and that volunteers were welcome in exchange for food credit. Their website proclaims “no bosses or managers—only people who are working for a space that maintains equality…” 34 years after its inception, this co-op not only still stands, but seems to be thriving, offering cooking classes, great local produce, and organic lunches far better than the fast food offered on the rest of the campus.

According to the International Co-operative Alliance’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity, a co-op (short for cooperative) is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” The difference between co-ops and corporations is that a group’s interests take priority over making a profit. The aim is for democratic control as well as education or information. Sometimes members pay an annual fee and receive discounts on products or services offered by a co-op; other times, volunteering time, labor or expertise results in a discount.

The ICA offers seven principles as guidelines for co-ops:
• Voluntary and Open Membership
• Democratic Member Control
• Member Economic Participation
• Autonomy and Independence
• Education, Training and Information
• Co-operation Among Cooperatives
• Concern for Community

Some co-ops have paid workers who are hired by a committee taking a vote. Others are all volunteer-run. Sometimes net earnings are returned to co-op members. Many co-ops are structured as non-profit organizations, and tax laws for such entities vary from state-to-state. Contact your state tax board, the IRS, and the ICA Group for guidance in starting a co-op.

Various types of groups and businesses use the co-operative model. A co-op is by not always a store. Most credit unions operate as co-ops in that they use the “one member, one vote” system for making business and investment decisions. Bicycle co-ops like my neighborhood’s exist all over the United States (warning–they won’t fix your bike, but will teach you how to fix it yourself!) The 924 Gilman Street Project in Berkeley, California is a popular volunteer-run performance venue. Some people live in community co-ops. Mothers throughout the world organize babysitting co-ops while many pre-schools are now operating as co-ops. Nature’s Bakery in Wisconsin has been a worker’s collective since 1970. Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina has been staffed by volunteers since 1981.

Remember that children’s story, Stone Soup? While many people in a village hoarded what little food they had, a traveling soldier offered to share what he had—a pot and an ordinary-looking stone. As he boiled water and the stone in his pot, various villagers became inspired, each contributing a vegetable, salt or meat to the soup. They all dined like kings that night, and offered to buy his ‘magic rock.’ He refused and moved on, leaving us with a morality tale about the benefits of sharing.

No membership is required at my local food co-op, but when I shop there I know I get quality food at a reasonable price; most importantly, I know my money supports a business that supports local environmental and social justice movements. Co-ops not only offer an alternative to the dominant business model common today, but they give us a chance to know our neighbors and make our communities the way we want them.


Shawna Kenney is an author, writing instructor and a member of several co-ops.

Photo credit: Shawna Kenney

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