Dwell in Possibility: Cooperating with Other Sectors

The sixth Cooperative Principle, Cooperation Among Co-ops, or P6, seems like a no-brainer.  Of course, cooperatives should cooperate.  There are a lot of benefits to working together, and cross-sector collaboration seems to be the best path toward creating a stronger cooperative economy.  Plus, it’s in the organizational DNA, right?

Everyone loves the idea of working together.  Yet the practicalities of doing so often come with questions.  How well do we understand other sectors?  What are other co-op cultures like?  What would it take for us to put meaningful pathways in place to work together more effectively?  Is working together cost-effective?

Although Principle 6 seeks to capitalize on mutual cooperative activity, it is a surprisingly complex principle to implement.  As much as some co-ops may hope for greater collaborative opportunities, it tends to be out-of-sight out-of-mind on a day-to-day basis.  Addressing the challenges that would make inter-cooperation potentially easier requires commitment.  There are dedicated cooperators who continue to nurture P6 and push for solutions because they believe in the principle’s inherent promise.

Adam Schwartz, co-op culture consultant, has been a longtime champion and adherent of greater cross-sector collaboration.  He started his career in the electric co-op sector, but soon expanded his work to include other sectors, too.  His experience as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill for cooperatives, as well as his work as a communications professional with National Cooperative Business Association, inspired in him great curiosity for “what other co-ops are doing.”

“There are co-ops in every industry,” Schwartz said, and they offer tremendous benefits to their local communities.  He also said that cooperatives overall deliver hope, and the means to ownership and fairness in the marketplace.  “Hope needs a strategy, and that’s what co-ops do.  They do real things that meet social and economic needs in communities.  I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to and see a lot of different co-ops in action.”  He envisions a future where different sectors like food, housing, electricity and credit unions come together to serve all aspects of a person’s life.

Yet he noted that “what gets measured is what gets done” and that there must be more than personal desire driving cross-sector co-op collaboration.  Schwartz thinks that adapting the 4 Cornerstones in 3 Phases model of food co-op development, or something like it, could be helpful to building an infrastructure that supports greater cooperation among co-ops.

“It’s important that people at some point take the longer view.  We’ve got something very special with the co-op business model, so much so that it’s grown and influenced every business sector,” Schwartz said.  “Applying the model of vision, talent, capital and systems to questions of organizing and assessing the feasibility of an idea, could contribute to stronger planning and implementation of a project.”

Holly Fearing, social media strategy consultant, is also inspired by the potential to work together, especially by opening the process to more partnerships focused on local communities.  She has worked in credit unions and is a board member of the Willy Street Grocery Co-op in Madison, Wisc.  She’s also part of the Dane County Cooperative Alliance that brings together co-ops in every sector in Madison.  “When approached from a broader perspective of inclusivity, jobs and equality in our communities, the co-op model always comes up as a possible solution.  But development often stays insular in the sectors.”

Part of changing that is having the opportunity to network and share information.  “Pulling in people from different co-op sectors is something we could be actively doing, bringing people and organizations together in a room.”  But like other people involved in cross-sector activities, Fearing knows that this is not enough.

Fearing thinks that challenge could be addressed through a solutions-based approach.  “When things are mapped out, planned and resourced, you can get better participation and engage other groups in working toward a solution.  We need to go to that higher level.”  She too sees a dynamic tension between being focused on serving your current customers and reaching out to other sectors.  Part of the solution is to simply raise awareness that other sectors are out there.  “I do think co-op-to-co-op education and onboarding could be part of the training in any co-op.”

Mark Goehring, recently named to become CDS Consulting Co-op’s new manager in January, said that’s critical.  “Education is important.  Cooking classes are nice, but that’s not about the power of the business model.”  He thinks people need to understand how the model is cultivating community and leverage that by impacting other businesses.  “Cross-sector cooperation is an opportunity, one that has largely been untapped in individual sectors.  There are some awesome success stories, but we need to build on that.”

He also noted that there are systemic things holding co-ops back from capitalizing on the opportunity to work together.  “It’s easy to get into our own silos in our sectors, and there’s always plenty to focus on,” so it can be a challenge to consider what’s going on outside your particular business area.  “We also don’t have systems set up to work together across sectors.”  Goehring said there are still ways to stretch beyond one’s four walls.

He cited as example one food co-op’s approach to figuring out how to cooperate for mutual benefit.  Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, North Carolina wanted to work with Riojana Cooperative, a wine and olive oil producer in Argentina, to import their products.  “It started with one co-op learning how to be in a business relationship with them.  Now it’s a national distribution, helping provide Riojana’s community with schools and jobs.”  It also provides Weaver Street Market, and other food co-ops, with an excellent product customers love to support.

From his perspective, this is an important catalyst to do more by providing more leadership.  “Ultimately it takes allocating resources.  It’s important to connect projects and resources to priorities,” he said.

Goehring sees the opportunity as one of strategic importance.  “What could be possible?  The vision is pretty cool.  There are opportunities to be connected to other co-ops more meaningfully.”

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