Using the 7 Cooperative Principles as Strategic Guide

Sometimes things become so familiar to us they lose some of their meaning.  In the workshops I conduct for board members and employees there is one particular exercise that I really enjoy doing.  The purpose of the exercise is to bring the co-op principles to life and connect them to the work we do.

It works like this:

adams-schwartz-pullout-2016-08I like to prepare a preamble anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour in which the principles are reviewed with examples of how co-ops in different sectors use them.

Ideally, 3-7 people are seated together in small groups.  A large gathering of people could be arranged at their own tables.  Each group has several copies of the principles with a brief description of the principles.

I give each table or group a minute to discuss which principle they want to do a “deeper dive” into during the main part of the exercise.  Once they decide which principle they want to discuss, the group can declare it by holding up their hand and saying which one.  Once the principle is claimed no other group or table can claim the same one, ensuring most or all the principles will be covered.

Each group is asked to describe how their co-op is living up to the principle and what more they could be doing.  Then each table must report back to the whole group of what they came up with as answers.  There is one caveat:  everyone at the table must participate in the report back.

This is a very flexible exercise, and participants can do it anyway they want, for example, play charades or Pictionary.  Have a mock press conference.  Or use it as an activity at an annual or board meeting.

The “takeaway” is to put in the front part of our conscience all the things we do or could be doing that connect to the Co-op Principles.  Sometimes we have been doing things so long we forget why we are doing them.  We know co-ops are different than investor-owned businesses and non-profits but since few people actually study co-ops in school, we must educate ourselves and keep educating others too.

Board of directors especially can use this as a kick start to discuss the principles at board meetings.  In fact, many boards take one principle per meeting over the course of 7 months.  For employees, co-ops use them to discuss why their teams should use the principles as a strategic guide.  Doing this activity helps to embed the principles in our everyday work in a meaningful manner.

When interacting with members, co-ops will want to highlight the connection between their activities and the principles.  For example, the co-op is participating in this “event” because of its concern for community.  Co-ops sell other cooperative-made products because of Principle 6 (and because the products are so darn good).

Overall, giving the Co-op Principles a priority in our organizations helps build a more cooperative culture and gives a greater sense of purpose to our board service or employment.

Connecting Co-ops Across Sectors

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way and a member of CDS Consulting Co-op.  A self-described co-op geek (he is a member of 8 co-ops) the majority of his work is with co-ops in all sectors to create a cooperative culture and grow the cross sector cooperative economy.  His work is with boards and employees.  In the fall of 2016, he will be teaching a course about cooperatives at Mary Washington University in his new hometown of Fredericksburg, VA.

You can reach Adam at 703-608-0534 or email at

The Cooperative Principles

Cooperatives around the world operate according to the same core principles and values, adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance. Cooperatives trace the roots of these principles to the first modern cooperative founded in Rochdale, England in 1844.

Voluntary and Open Membership

Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all people able to use its services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

2-Dem-Member-ControlDemocratic Member Control

Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members—those who buy the goods or use the services of the cooperative—who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions.

Members’ Economic Participation

Members contribute equally to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. This benefits members in proportion to the business they conduct with the cooperative rather than on the capital invested.

Autonomy and Independence

Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If the co-op enters into agreements with other organizations or raises capital from external sources, it is done so based on terms that ensure democratic control by the members and maintains the cooperative’s autonomy.

P6Education, Training and Information

Cooperatives provide education and training for members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperative. Members also inform the general public about the nature and benefits of cooperatives.

Cooperation among Cooperatives

Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

Concern for Community

While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of communities through policies and programs accepted by the members.

You can purchase these 7 Cooperative Principles posters from Cooperation Texas.


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