What's in Community Contributions?

The theme of cooperatives’ contributions to their communities is a well chosen one for activities promoting cooperatives—for more, see p. 12. But these contributions may be deeper than the usual messages convey.

The many forms of community contributions manifest certain values that I want to highlight: democracy, compassion, diversity, solidarity. Obviously neither claiming nor frequently practicing these values is unique to cooperatives and co-op members. Yet each of these values is enhanced through cooperative ownership, an organizational structure that is itself a fundamental contribution to the community.

Presently, democracy gets lip service but is very degraded in the U.S. Regrettably, democratic ownership of services and resources, exemplified by cooperatives, is missing from most political conversations. More profoundly, a community benefits not only from a co-op’s services but also through the living example of an enterprise owned by its users, an enterprise that is governed by an elected board and that distributes its earnings to those users and to the local community.

Excuse these rudimentary points. But when co-ops describe their values they also should underscore the importance of member ownership. Recently I read yet another manager’s column in a food co-op newsletter, my attention drawn by a headline about “what makes us truly a co-op.” But her comments on that theme were limited to describing a friendly, trusting atmosphere and the opportunities for involvement—nothing about member ownership or capital, nothing about democratic control. And while appealing to mainstream shoppers is essential—see the “talking points” article—that is not what defines the co-op.

A cooperative is its mission, its member-owners, its assets, its image—all of these. It is an arena providing valuable services and meaningful choices, access to trustworthy products and information, and opportunities for involvement, all in support of a larger mission. Member-driven activities are the key—this edition has several examples plus an excellent summary of co-op “transparency” by Brett Fairbairn. Such activities support the broad mission of building member ownership.

The community benefits from member-driven programs directly as well as through the co-op’s example of democratic practice, which echoes in other social arenas. I’d like to see co-ops give more emphasis to democratic ownership and to advancing and defending cooperatives in all sectors. For example, credit unions continue to be threatened by the banking industry and its allies, and the interests of all cooperatives are at stake.

As for acts of compassion or sharing, while they are trumped by acts of empowerment (giving someone fish vs. teaching someone to fish), they are necessary. We are here to help one another, and one cannot gainsay contributions addressing common features of American life such as inadequate food or shelter, domestic abuse, lack of health care, a degraded environment, and many others. A sound and growing method for supporting such compassionate work is through co-op community funds, which also support co-op development—see the report in this edition.

Diversity (everyone is able to fish) is another essential community value co-ops can exemplify, if they work at it. Today, although officially denied and politely overlooked, discrimination against people with certain cultural, racial, or gender identities is widespread and institutionalized. Co-ops that are true to their stated values—and hence open to change in their practices!—can demonstrate better ways of working together, including respect for differences.

Naturally, we can advance all these values and strengthen social justice by working with other organizations outside the co-op. That is an uneasy step for some cooperators, a step that must enhance, not compromise, the co-op’s values and mission. But if member linkage is key to the life of a co-op, community linkage—having allies—is key to the life of our core values.

Solidarity is acting on the recognition that we’re all in it together (teaching ourselves to fish sustainably). Like democracy it is much degraded in our larger surroundings. Solidarity is perhaps the final statement of value; in my pragmatic view it is the generalized form of love. Its spirit: “Let’s get to work.”

A co-op is a principled, organized form of solidarity. Its community contributions are delivered not only through donations, volunteers, and sponsorships. The co-op can identify service to the community and protection of the community as an appropriate and necessary organizational mission. Such a mission also supports future conversations about the boundaries of the community and whether the co-op will help extend values such as democracy, compassion, diversity, and solidarity to others who are presently underserved or unacknowledged.

My tone may seem overly dramatic, unless you share my vision that the need for community contributions is already large and likely to greatly increase. We are fortunate to be part of growing and rewarding cooperative enterprises. Rather than being merely a cause of satisfaction, such success prepares us for more contributions in the future.

In the previous edition I reported on the food co-op leadership conference and a speaker’s description of democratic values, of “self interest, properly understood” and the “pursuit of (public) happiness.” My comments are in the same vein. Cooperatives allow us to articulate our values, to describe what culture cooperatives are defending. The co-op arena also helps us address our society’s fearsome problems: these challenges contain opportunities to propose cooperative solutions embodying shared values.

See other articles from this issue: #114 September - October - 2004