Co-op as Gift

I read a lot of co-op newsletters, and by a combination of scanning and close reading learn a lot from them. Obviously, a site visit would be more informative, and a sight by means of one good picture might be worth a thousand newsletter words. But lacking these opportunities, the mail tells me a great deal about what's happening and what's not happening in these businesses: new products, staff projects, education approaches, financial performance, board priorities. While gleaning such information, I find items that are amusing (not always intentionally), leads on good ideas for other co-ops, and an overall impression of the business.

Occasionally, there appears an article or even a brief passage which inspires me and illuminates a field much wider than the usual remarks. Such was the case not long ago when I came across a comment in a discussion for members of the Boston Food Co-op, concerning whether their store, which has been growing rapidly and operating profitably, should plan an additional facility elsewhere. The co-op's manager, David Barry, after reviewing various arguments favoring expansion to a second store, stated:

It's true that members who live near the new store get much more convenient shopping, while members who live near this store already have convenient shopping. But most of the above advantages strengthen the whole organization. More to the point, an "I've got mine, Jack" attitude is pretty inconsistent with what we're trying to do here. The co-op is in large part a gift from those who preceded us, and we have an obligation to pass it on and spread it around.

To me, that last sentence is beautiful, one worth repeating in every co-op meeting room and publication. In fact, the notion of gift carries even more depth than that and applies to a great deal of social life: What is truly "yours" anyway, and where did it come from? (For those interested in pursuing the social and cultural implications of this thought, so foreign to an individualist ethic and a predatory economic system, I recommend the book, The Gift, by Lewis Hyde.)

Unfortunately, many co-op members and workers act, to speak bluntly, as if the co-op were a gift for them. This is apparent in numerous instances of cooperatives which stagnate or go out of business because they can't change practices and policies which favor an existing, often small, group but which exclude or make uncomfortable many other potential customers, members, and staff. If challenged, advocates often respond with the circular argument that such and such practice is part of what makes this a co-op, and we don't want to change that. Successful cooperative businesses also are prone to these self-serving dynamics. The steady influx of customers, most of whom often are not members, is taken to demonstrate that present policies are good for the co-op; possibilities for growth that would bring the benefits of cooperation to much greater numbers of people are overlooked or even explicitly rejected, for fear of changing the existing atmosphere.

In my former home area, for example, several retail co-ops have been very successful, in terms of sales and sales growth, for years, yet they can't bring themselves to agree on and implement a growth mission and strategy. And these and other stores seldom work together, despite being close geographically. As I detailed in my analysis last year of the decline of that region's co-op wholesaler and many of its former retail members, such attitudes hurt the entire cooperative food distribution system. In concluding that several thousand word piece, I suggested that a better approach to co-op development could be summed up in the statement: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is practically identical with the statement in the current edition's article on the necessity of growth beyond a single store focus -- a discussion I hope all co-op directors, staff, and members will attend to:

"It will mean keeping uppermost in our minds the growth of the whole co-op rather than that of any particular unit, remembering that we're all in this together."

See other articles from this issue: #024 September - October - 1989