A group of us from Cowork Niagara joined co-operative leaders from across Ontario in Milton recently for the 2015 On Co-op Conference and Celebration. The theme for this year’s conference was Capturing Opportunities for Collaboration Among Co-operatives. Here are a few takeaways from the day:
1) Grassroots community building and relationship development drive our success
Our day kicked off with a panel session – ‘Co-ops & Credit Unions: Matchmaker Needed?’ where we explored the importance of building and maintaining relationships among co-operatives, and the need for “matchmakers” between credit unions and other cooperatives.
If we embed our organizations in the co-operative sector by connecting with other organizations in our midst, we build relationships that “drive continuous interaction and engagement”, said Marc-André Pigeon of Credit Union Central of Canada.
The process of relationship building can’t and shouldn’t be shortcut if we want our co-operatives to develop successfully, said Cowork Niagara’s Trevor Twining, adding we face challenges when we start to bypass it. “Start having those relationships now. Do it often. Do it early.”
[pullquote]Start having those relationships now. Do it often. Do it early.
– Trevor Twining, Cowork Niagara[/pullquote]
As for matchmakers, Momentum Credit Union will be proactive in meeting with other co-operatives. Our organizations should harness opportunities to join one another’s boards, as well as engage with customers and other stakeholders electronically and in person. On Momentum’s end, it’s looking forward to improving its democratic processes regarding Annual General Meetings and governance.
2) Co-operative businesses are diverse, resilient and competitive.
Co-operatives have been dubbed “the best kept secret in business”. Other business models such as sole proprietorship may be more popular, but the statistics about Ontario’s 1,300 co-operatives don’t lie:
– Ontario’s non-financial co-ops have more than $30 billion in assets and $2.1 billion in revenue
– More than 2 out of 3 Canadians agree that co-ops are a trusted place to do business
– Studies demonstrate that co-operative enterprises have significantly higher survival rates than other business corporations (after 1, 5 and 10 years)
– Co-ops exist in virtually every sector of the economy, from agriculture and local food, retail and financial services, to housing, manufacturing, childcare, funeral services and renewable energy.
We learned that the co-op sector has a bright future if we take the right approach, and some risks, to investing in emerging co-ops that often face challenges in accessing funding. This problem is well documented – 74% of co-operatives say that access to capital is increasingly difficult, and 1 out of 5 indicate this represents a serious barrier to their growth.
[pullquote]The co-op sector has a bright future if we take the right approach, and some risks, to investing in emerging co-ops.[/pullquote]
Potential solutions include the Canadian Co-operative Investment Fund (it needs to pass a $25-million threshold before it can start operating) and partnerships with credit unions, which could draw on their history in the sector to offer support. Other barriers include government regulation of co-ops and lack of education and awareness among potential founders, investors and the public about the benefits of incorporating as a co-operative, and what our organizations do for our economy. The importance of telling our stories and educating stakeholders about the ‘3P’ bottom line – People, Planet and Profit – was a recurring theme. Co-operative businesses are diverse, resilient and competitive. It’s time to share this message in our communities and advocate for meaningful regulatory changes from our provincial and federal governments.
A panel of co-operative leaders, including Janet MacLeod of Community CarShare, Cynthia Mitchell of the Ottawa Co-op Network and Jeff Pastorius of On the Move Organics, shared their stories of how they contribute to People, Planet and Profit. Community CarShare provides its members access to vehicles on a self-serve, pay-per-use basis, began in Kitchener-Waterloo and has since expanded to Hamilton, Elmira, Guelph, St. Catharines and London. The Ottawa Co-op Network brings co-ops and credit unions together to raise awareness of the co-operative business model, celebrate co-operatives and build closer working relationships. On the Move Organics, a London-based organic food delivery service, added The Root Cellar café and juice bar, as well as the London Brewing Co-operative, and continues to flourish.
3) When co-operatives co-operate, we foster opportunities to succeed
In London, which is seeing a swell of co-operative success, On the Move Organics, the Root Cellar cafe and juice bar and the London Brewing Co-operative serve as enduring examples of separately run, interdependent businesses.
“Food is a powerful source for change,” explained Jeff Pastorius, adding that On the Move Organics is always open to new, entrepreneurial people excited to join the business and the local food movement. On the co-op front, he puts more collaboration with the finance sector high on his wish list, and Malcolm Stoffman of Momentum Credit Union echoed his sentiment, adding mutual respect, learning and understanding result in long-term relationships, as well as opportunities to share information and resources. Locally, the Niagara Co-operative Network and its members are putting Principle #6 into action. Recently, co-operative leaders from throughout the region gathered to celebrate Co-op Week. The network also hosts regular meetings to identify the issues, challenges and opportunities we’re encountering and find resources to help us address them. The importance of active co-operative networks was emphasized throughout the conference.
4) Educating stakeholders is key to community participation and buy-in
Educating stakeholders, spreading awareness and increasing understanding of co-operatives and what they do are vital to our survival and success.
We have to start this process within our businesses by training and offering ongoing professional development opportunities to our employees, said Dave Robinson of Mountain Equipment Co-op, who told us how he integrates co-operative principles and philosophy into employee training. We have a wide range of options to consider when structuring training programs. In the last plenary session of the day, ‘The Benefits of Educating your Staff & Membership about Co-ops’, we learned that co-op education comes in all shapes and sizes, from informal e-courses to classroom-based experiences, said Sandra Dawe of The Co-operators, adding co-ops should be strategic about how they choose to educate their staff. The Co-operators offers its staff the opportunity to attend St. Mary’s University Masters in Management of Co-operatives and Credit Unions program, and provides ongoing financial support for learning and development.
“Small can be really beautiful. It doesn’t need to be big. By being realistic, we’re able to be more effective with our time,” said Dawe.
[pullquote]Small can be really beautiful. It doesn’t need to be big. By being realistic, we’re able to be more effective with our time.
– Sandra Dawe,
Storytelling is another popular way to capture employees’ imaginations and get buy-in. Management at Gay Lea Foods Co-operative believe passionately in the history and power of education. A vision was created and buy-in was secured from the start. The company sends high-potential employees to the Lighthouse Program, which develops their understanding of the business and their individual leadership skills. They also run leadership and youth programs.
“As an employee, I can be engaged. I can have a stake in my co-operative,” said Gay Lea Foods’ Quintin Fox, adding that when staff understands the operations and strategy behind the co-operative, they buy in and bring powerful messages to owners and customers that help the company differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace. Training should be relevant and well planned, with a vision and framework in place.
Expanding that awareness within the co-operative community and among members is a must too. The Co-operators has done this through their support of co-op education, advocacy for co-op issues and support of emerging and expanding co-ops through its Co-operative Development Program, which granted $150,000 to 13 co-ops across Canada in 2014.
Another highlight came courtesy of Credit Unions of Ontario, which sought to address the awareness deficit of the co-operative banking movement in the province with an ad blitz and awareness campaign. It worked – Steve Bolton of Libro Credit Union noted 700,000 more Ontarians are now aware of credit unions than when the campaign launched in January 2014.
At Gay Lea, their member-owners – farmers – are passionate, active advocates of membership, so the company leveraged them as brand ambassadors to share their experiences on social media.
5) Stay true to your co-op’s purpose and values
Values and co-operative principles play a large role in how we create, govern and operate our organizations (read Trevor Twining’s explanation of how we live co-op principles at Cowork Niagara). Peggy Baillie of Eat Local Sudbury, a co-op grocery store, told one of the most inspiring stories of the day, about the co-op’s Banana Referendum. She explained they knew they had to expand production to increase sales, but were constrained by policies governing what they could offer customers. They continued to hear requests for bananas, so ELS held the so-called Banana Referendum – an in-store vote that ran for two weeks and welcomed member votes on whether the store should carry bananas. It was a proud moment for ELS, as they helped members execute their democratic right.
“The conversation started expanding and growing. It was a really effective method in engaging our membership,” which realized the power of their co-op. Ninety-five percent voted in favour of carrying bananas, and ELS now carries fair trade organic fruits that can’t be produced in Canada.
“People want to hear a story. They want to make it real,” she said, adding co-ops should tell their members how their story relates to the organization’s identity, co-operative principles and values.
The Co-operative Communities Index – a province-wide initiative led by Credit Unions of Ontario – was also recently published. It ranks 30 Ontario communities on their commitment to co-operative values and community spirit.
Cowork Niagara would like to thank all those who contributed to sending members Sandra Booker, Laura Ip and Allison Smith to this conference. With your support, we were able to network with co-operative leaders from across Ontario, learn about the state of the co-operative movement and upcoming opportunities, and bring back valuable information to help us grow the co-operative movement in Niagara and beyond.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the conference and the co-operative movement. Leave me a comment below!