Know where you’re going? Build cooperative capital

A well-known joke warns, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there!” If a cooperative does not have its purpose clearly identified and well supported in practice, that purpose may never be realized.

In any examined life, purpose is a necessary, larger context—a deep and, we hope, lasting level at which we make a difference. The previous edition included a discussion of how one co-op grew to recognize that its goal of “sustainability” cannot be achieved in isolation and that its purpose as a cooperative joined it to the future of other cooperatives. Several reports in the present edition illustrate steps in that direction.

Perhaps the best shorthand description of cooperative purpose is to build democracy or democratic control of capital. “Democratic culture creates cooperatives to defend the culture” (Hartoonian: see p. 32). Democracy must be practiced; it is an active verb; similarly, cooperation and co-op education must be active and periodically renewed.

Cooperatives strengthen community, and their enrichment of everyday life is an ultimate good. But for their contributions to community to endure and grow, cooperatives must build organizations based on democratic control of capital. Capital, broadly, encompasses all the resources of and in the community. The co-op’s portion is primarily defined in its balance sheet.

However, note that, like their communities, cooperatives are more than simply people doing together what they cannot do individually. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The implication is that the cooperative itself must be attended to rather than neglected. The co-op can model democratic control of capital well or poorly.

If the co-op’s culture defines saving money as its primary purpose, often the result is over-discounting to individuals and under-investing in the organization and the future. If the co-op’s recognized purpose is limited to “promoting good health,” members and even directors may not see how democratic control of resources is an enduring social foundation for improved health-related services.

Improving services depends on recognition by members and leadership that the co-op’s needs exist alongside the need for immediate member benefits. A key example of how these interests are balanced is the treatment of earnings; the conversion of many food co-ops to annual patronage rebates and reduced purchase discounts is discussed in this edition. Similarly, the example of a co-op structure that allows nonvoting investors addresses a key barrier to extending democratically controlled capital; and the report on building local business alliances explores the larger community context for these efforts.

Such activities constitute steps toward sustainability. A recent article, “Financing a Sustainable Future” (Christopher Bedford, In Business, Jan.–Feb. 2005) commented critically about a rosy outlook on business development which says that we can have it all: that sustainability, economy, and equity—harmony with nature, profits, income for community and workers—can all be achieved together through the right kind of enterprise and investment. “Unfortunately…much of the progressive community is trapped in a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland dream about the challenge of building a sustainable economy…Who is going to finance the transition to a sustainable economy, particularly a sustainable local food economy? Who will pay? Who will benefit?”

Their values, services, and ownership structure make co-ops well positioned to address economic and environmental challenges, of which there will be many. What is your cooperative’s agenda? What values are proclaimed and also actively realized? Purpose and values matter because we are here to help each other—and because, in the foreseeable future, co-ops and their communities will be called upon to do more.

Co-ops can help their communities address the choices encountered. Against a culture of competitive individualism—get yours, get it now, let others pay much of the costs—co-ops and their allies can uphold values that are fundamental to our common future. These values, identified by cooperatives from across the globe, also are the foundation of sustainability: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity.

How will we build such a foundation? Bedford’s review of financing a sustainable future reduces it to four elements: unity, discipline, courage, and hard work.

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #118 May - June - 2005