Over the past few years, consumers have increasingly begun to value doing business on a local level. Profit at any cost has fallen out of favor, and more and more consumers want to build relationships with businesses that take an ethical, values-based approach. This switch in preferences favors businesses like cooperatives, which are by nature community-based institutions.
So how can cooperatives capitalize on these trends and build a more cooperative economy? Co-op leaders from the Southeast grappled with that question at a meeting in Raleigh Saturday, March 5th at the Quorum Center.
About sixty representatives from food, housing & electric co-ops, as well as credit unions, came together for the meeting. The group heard presentations via video from cooperative thought leaders across the globe, including Charles Gould, the Director-General of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA). Gould noted that with 2012 designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Cooperatives, the ICA hopes to ensure that the year raises awareness among consumers about the strengths of co-ops.
Gould noted that the ICA is making three main points in communicating the strengths of cooperatives during the IYC:
- Cooperatives are a serious business model;
- Cooperatives are values-based entities built on the concept of mutual self-help;
- Members control the cooperative and have an equal voice.
Gould added that IYC should only be the start of a larger conversation, and that later this year the ICA would be rolling out a blueprint for a cooperative decade. "By 2020, it's our goal that cooperatives be the fastest-growing business model in terms of impact," he said. He also noted that if, at the end of the year, cooperatives had only marked the year through celebrations and had not raised awareness among consumers and built a blueprint for the future, that the IYC will not have been a success.
After hearing from Gould and a host of other speakers, the group strategized ways to build bridges through the day in order to engage, leverage and grow the existing cooperative economy. "Simply sitting down and talking about the challenges we face as cooperatives in America is enlightening," said Local Government FCU Innovation Strategist Michael Spink. "We each face many of the same issues: communication with members needs improvement. People don't understand cooperatives. Local leaders need to know about us. How can we collaborate and share resources? It all points to the collaboration piece. We can learn a lot from one another," Spink said.
Spink noted that cooperatives could benefit from uniting behind a clear, compelling message. "Awareness, understanding and involvement are things we all need and things we can all have," said Spink. "We need to get up and take a look at the other guy. Take a look and have a visit with people that are similar. Discover ideas, discover solutions, discover something new. Then you have to work. Take some action and get out there," he added.