#ByeTwitter? Doing It For Ourselves on Social.Coop!

social dot coop.png

In many ways, the recent #BuyTwitter campaign has been a watershed, breakout moment for the #PlatformCoop movement. While, up to that point, there'd been much theoretical chatter and some successful niche platform co-op applications, the #BuyTwitter ballot item galvanized and focused the community in a new and powerful way. In addition to widely spreading awareness of the co-op model, this energy translated into public endorsements by key major co-op federations and institutions, including the International Co-operative Alliance. As a result, "platform co-operativism" has moved from being a wonky subculture at the intersection of tech and co-ops to a widely recognized essential element of the future co-op movement, which is a huge victory in and of itself.

When the post-annual meeting votes were finally tallied, the #BuyTwitter resolution received 4.9%, which was well in excess of the 3% goal that was the threshold required to re-submit the resolution next year. While discussions are ongoing on the idea of a limited study prior to a second go in 2018, many supporters, inspired by the vision of a user-controlled social media platform, have started signing up for Social.Coop.

The idea for Social.Coop emerged among #BuyTwitter supporters in early April, when the Mastodon platform burst into the public spotlight following some significant changes to Twitter's design. Built on top of the GNUsocial architecture, Mastodon is an open-source "microblogging" platform that operates very much like Twitter - there's a 500 character limit, Tweets are called "Toots", and #hashtags are used for content organization and discovery.

What makes Mastodon fundamentally different than Twitter, and many of the other platforms that populate our online worlds, is that it's based on the principle of federation. Thus, rather than a single company hosting your profile and data, you can choose a host (or "instance") from among a multitude of options, and still connect and communicate with folks on other instances via the federation of instances. A good parallel for this dynamic is email vs. Twitter: an email can be sent from an @gmail.com address to an @yahoo.com address with no issues, while a Twitter account can only communicate with other accounts hosted by Twitter.

In the heady early days of Mastodon, the choice of which instance to join was somewhat arbitrary - curious hobbyists were setting them up on personal servers and accepting all comers. However, as the community has grown, questions of Instance governance and sustainability have emerged: how should instances set and enforce policies, and how can they support themselves as they scale without engaging in the same deeply problematic data monetization practices that have been driving users to Mastodon in the first place?

It was in response to these tensions that the Social.Coop project emerged as a way to realize the #BuyTwitter vision in the short term on a practical scale. A group of volunteers came together on the (worker co-op developed and run) Loomio platform, and, after a few meetings, a volunteer purchased a .coop domain and spun up an instance. Simultaneously, Nathan Schneider set up an OpenCollective project though which members could make monthly contributions and expenses could be transparently reimbursed, and it was decided that membership would consist of a sliding-scale monthly contribution of between $1-10, with the possibility of free "honorary memberships."

After a few weeks of getting infrastructure in place, Social.Coop received a wave of applications for membership from the co-op community in the wake of the #BuyTwitter vote. As a result, the local timeline has become an increasingly vibrant space for chatter among co-op practitioners, academics, developers, and enthusiasts from around the globe. While there's still much work to be done before the project is truly ready to scale (bylaws to be finalized, incorporation to be decided upon, code of conduct to be developed, etc.), Social.Coop's success thus-far has been encouraging, both in its implications for the future of co-op social media as a model, and for its concrete success in building a self-managed online social space for co-op geeks.

In his powerful address to student co-operators in the immediate aftermath of the recent U.S. election, Fund for Democratic Communities executive director Ed Whitfield argued that making real change requires three interlocking tactics: resistance, advocacy, and doing it for ourselves. While groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation resist the worst excesses of the extractive social media behemoths, and the #BuyTwitter campaign advocates for their transformative reform, Social.Coop is showing what is possible by building a co-op social media space that can be used now, and that will hopefully serve as a hub for co-op movement organizing going forward.

If this vision speaks to you, apply for membership and toot at me!

Matt Cropp is a member of the Co-op Water Cooler Editorial Collective, Associate Director of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, Chief Manager of the Vermont Solidarity Investing Club, and Board Chair of Full Barrel Co-op. He lives in Burlington, VT with his long-time partner and a pair of excellent rabbits. You can find him at https://social.coop/@MattCropp

#BuyTwitter! Why (and How) Co-ops Should Support the Campaign

In the Fall of 2016, Twitter investors were down in the dumps. Rumors had been swirling over the summer about potential suitors eyeing acquiring the social platform, but, one by one, all the major possible players rejected it. With its value and future in question, journalist and platform co-op enthusiast Nathan Schneider came out in The Guardian with a bold proposal: Twitter's users should purchase the platform as a co-op!

This vision sparked a great deal of conversation, and, in December, a shareholder resolution was submitted that calls on Twitter to produce a study on the feasibility of transitioning ownership to a co-op or similar broad-based structure. The resolution was included, over the objections of the company's board of directors, on the proxy ballot that has been sent out in preparation for Twitter's annual shareholders meeting on Monday, May 22.

As the #BuyTwitter campaign has unfolded and grown over the past few months in support of the resolution, it has proven to be a surprisingly powerful vehicle for communicating the co-op idea at scale. This is driven by the fact that the campaign is actually engaging Twitter users in something of a "meta-discussion" about the nature of our relationship to the social platforms that we use to communicate with each other.

The recent American election affirmed to many that the power of social media has begun to eclipse the hegemony of the legacy media establishment. If that's the case, then the stakes of who owns Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk are no longer just which VC firms get to profit off of your cat photos. Such companies' algorithms now have the power to fundamentally shape the political and social realities we inhabit, and the question of who gets to wield that power has become one of the more important political questions of our time.

In this moment of profound uncertainty and future shock, the #BuyTwitter campaign has brought a compelling alternative vision to the table: that social media could be re-structured to empower its users, rather than exploiting their psychological vulnerabilities for material gain. This narrative has been a wedge through which awareness of the co-op model has been spreading in the tech-savvy Twitter community, and the more this signal can be boosted between now and the May 22 vote, the more beneficial awareness of our model can be reaped by the whole co-op movement!

Therefore, consider taking the following concrete next actions, both personally and for your co-op:

  • Sign the #BuyTwitter Petition!
  • Follow the @BuyThisPlatform account, which has been acting as a clearing house for the #BuyTwitter conversation and movement.
  • Engage in the meta-discussion with your co-op's members on social media! An example of this would be tweeting something along these lines from your co-op's account:
    Our #CreditUnion is a depositor-owned #coop; what do you think of the #BuyTwitter proposal for $twtr to #GoCoop? https://www.buytwitter.org/
    Such prompts serve both to reinforce your members' understanding of the co-op model, while also giving the campaign a boost!


Matt Cropp is the Associate Director of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, Chief Manager of the Vermont Solidarity Investing Club, and Board President of Full Barrel Co-op. He can be found on Twitter @MattCropp and on Mastodon at MattCropp@Social.coop

Building the Co-op Movement Base with Investment Clubs

A perennial conversation in various corners of the co-op world centers on what, exactly, we are? A “movement” or an “industry/sector”?

It’s a common enough tension that scholars of cooperation have weighed in with a number of interpretations. In his analysis of the credit union movement, the late historian Ian MacPherson perceived it to be a question of developmental stages, with a “populist” mode driving early growth through evangelistic fervor before being replaced by a “system” identity as the extensive expansion phase ends and operations become professionalized.

Less deterministically, in his influential and insightful essay “Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Co-operatives,” Canadian co-op studies scholar Brett Fairbairn locates a tension in what he asserts to be the “dualistic” view of cooperatives, characterized by the twin set of economic and social goals. Within that framework, “industry” people (for Fairbairn, often managers) tend to focus on the primacy of economic goals while viewing social goals as a secondary expense, while “movement” people (Fairbairn introduces the wonderful phrase “arbiters of cooperative purity”) perceive the social mission as the primary raison de etre of cooperation.

Following on these insights, an additional vital element lies in a question of individual vision and purpose. For “movement” people, co-ops are a tool for bringing into being a fundamentally different and more just socio-economic order. These “practical utopian” programs have borne many names over the years: “The Co-operative Commonwealth,” “Economic Democracy,” etc., but at their core lies the idea that the voluntary efforts of associated common people has the power create an economic life based on mutuality rather than predation.

By contrast, “industry” people might get on board for reasons of expedience, but tend not to hold significant deep-seated commitments to a particular transformative vision. For instance, such a person’s career might start at a credit union, then move to a for-profit bank should an opportunity arises in service to the advancement of their career. By contrast, many “movement” folks would prefer to change industries but stay working for co-ops over to taking a job with a firm that fails to align with their values.

Because of their energy and vision, “movement” people often punch far above their weight when it comes to building the co-op economy. They are the ones willing to take the risk of starting new co-ops, contribute volunteer time and expertise to co-op boards, call their legislators when a regulatory fight flares up, etc.  However, if MacPherson’s aforementioned thesis is correct, movement energy tends to decline as co-ops mature, potentially leading to a dearth of entrepreneurship, rubber stamp boards vulnerable to management capture, political influence more driven by PAC donations than grassroots engagement, etc.

So. How do we get our co-op grass-roots organized, energized, and growing? While there are many possible approaches, one in particular has recently caught my attention and imagination: cooperative investment clubs.

Under American securities law, a group may form an organization that is exempt from the regulations governing “investment companies” so long as it meets certain conditions, such as including all members in decision making and being organized as a “pass through” entity such as a partnership or an LLC (which limits clubs to a maximum of 100 members). People have been forming such clubs for the better part of a century, but the focus has generally been around investing in publicly traded securities while saving money on brokerage fees and learning about finance.

The jump to applying this time-tested model to investing in cooperatives was first made in Minneapolis in 2013, when Co-op Principal was established. Club members agree to invest $50 per month, and they meet monthly (often at a local brewery) to discuss and vote on co-op investment opportunities. Since its founding, Co-op Principal has had a five-figure capital impact on its local co-op economy, and the club has generated annual returns for its members in the 2-4% range.

The vision of Co-op Principal’s founders was not simply to create a club in their city, but to spread the model across the country. To advance this agenda, they created a parallel non-profit intended to house model documents and provide support to other groups looking to get their own clubs going. Since its establishment, a similar club is now up and running in Boston, and at least three more are in the process of organizing for early 2017 launches. Active conversations are also now underway around how the growing of network of clubs can contribute resources to the non-profit for the purpose of developing the sort of shared plug-and-play online infrastructure that could drastically simplify the process of both starting new clubs and operating existing ones.

The spread of these clubs has several potentially powerful implications for building the co-op movement grass-roots. Most obviously, it creates a new player in the local co-op capital ecosystem that can fill some existing gaps, including being a source of early development investments for start-ups (whose organizers, in turn, might join the club) and serving as an early “pump-priming” investor for member loan and equity crowdfunding campaigns.

Second, the 100 member size limitation and participatory decision-making requirements mean that clubs will tend to be geographically specific and meet on a regular basis. As a result, they can potentially serve as hubs through which co-op “movement” people can find and get to know each other in particular communities. Over time, the trust and skills developed working together in the club will hopefully transfer into working on start-up and conversion projects, with the clubs serving as incubators and accelerators for new co-op enterprise ideas.

Finally, by creating a direct stake in the financial stability and well-being of a number of co-ops, co-op investment clubs have the potential to partially counter the “democratic deficit” experienced by many consumer co-ops by creating an organized mechanism for mobilizing members for governance engagement when necessary. While hopefully rarely activate for this purpose, having an organized group of members monitoring the behavior and performance of co-ops in their community might catch and address issues earlier than would be possible in a co-op with an entirely atomized membership.

In short, co-op investment clubs are easy to set up (and hopefully will become even easier in the coming year) and have the potential to boost any community’s co-op movement in a number of positive ways. As such, every committed cooperator should seek out such a club in their community and, if it doesn’t exist, reach out to Co-op Principal for advice about starting one. Through small monthly investments and building a welcoming community of committed co-op enthusiasts, a robust network of cooperating co-op investment clubs could form the foundation of a reinvigorated co-op movement.

In addition to being part of the Co-op Water Cooler editorial collective, Matt Cropp the Associate Director of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center and board president of Full Barrel Cooperative. He geeks out about credit union history, and is involved in kick-starting a co-op investment club in Vermont.

Consumers: Take Back the Grid by Forming Co-ops

Electric consumers need a New Deal.

Yes, I’m talking about that New Deal – the one from the 1930s.  When Congress adopted the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the nation’s investor-owned utilities had simply refused to serve 70 percent of the continental U.S., consigning millions of Americans to a life of darkness and poverty because they were not in cities or suburbs.  So, this hugely successful New Deal program led to the establishment of rural electric cooperatives – customer-owned utilities that are democratically controlled and exist exclusively to serve consumers rather than profit-seeking shareholders.

Today the electric industry is again in a crisis in which there is reason to doubt the ability of investor-owned firms to meet customer needs.  Unlike the 1930s, when the challenge was universal service, now the problem is an industry that is unable to help consumers take full advantage of sweeping technological change and the vast opportunities for empowerment and savings this represents.

The problem is especially pressing in states like New Hampshire, where I represent the interests of residential utility customers in my capacity as head of the Office of the Consumer Advocate. Like 14 other states, New Hampshire has restructured its electric industry so that consumers are no longer stuck with their incumbent utility and are free to shop around for electricity suppliers. But from what I can see, this has meant little to residential customers other than leaving them too vulnerable to the unregulated and avaricious among energy firms.

Distributed generation is the most troubling example. Solar panels are now cheap enough to produce that many consumers can afford to acquire them to self-generate and feed excess production back into the grid.  But the utilities regard this as an existential threat to their business model and, even worse, many solar companies peddle bad deals to consumers while marketing themselves as virtuous because solar power is renewable energy. If you rent rather than own your home, or if you’re in a shady spot, you’re mostly out of luck.

Energy efficiency is another problem. The cheapest kilowatt-hour (kwh) is the one we avoid using.  Recently, Energy efficiency costs less than 5 cents per kwh, cheaper than anything else we can buy to meet our household energy needs. But we insist on relying on the utilities to deliver that efficiency, which is the equivalent of paying McDonald’s to help people eat fewer Quarter Pounders. We are leaving lots of cost-effective energy efficiency unrealized.

Home energy management is also a pressing but unmet need. Technology exists to allow residential customers to save money by operating appliances, air conditioners, furnaces and other devices when wholesale power is plentiful. But investor-owned utilities are reluctant to offer such services to consumers and other providers tend to focus on bigger, commercial users of electricity.

And then there is competitive energy supply. Most suppliers are either uninterested in serving small customers or, worse, offer plans that are reminiscent of the worst excesses practiced by unscrupulous (and unregulated) cable and phone providers. Aggregators can pool the demand of lots of small customers but nothing assures they will act in the best interests of those customers.

Industry insiders love to tout all the customer-liberating hardware and software available these days – everything from power storage units from Tesla, to Nest thermostats that can ‘learn’ when you need heating and cooling, to energy management platforms that can theoretically help you take advantage of rates that vary as the electricity supply and demand vary over the course of the day. But here’s a reality check I heard recently from Steve Camerino, CEO of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, summarizing the perspective of his co-op’s typical member: “I don’t want to change what I do – I just wanna save money.”

That typical member of a rural electric co-op is lucky; she lives in a place where her utility is by definition her agent and must buy electricity, deploy technology and offer services in her best interests. Her co-op will indeed help her save money while helping her avoid disruptive lifestyle changes.  But  what about the rest of us? Those of us in the service territories of investor-owned utilities are victims of the sort of market failure – industry inability and/or unwillingness to give us what we need – that has historically been the moment for co-ops to step in.

Rural electric cooperatives cannot legally expand their service territories.  But a state consumer cooperative statute, under which food co-ops typically operate, can accommodate energy services cooperatives. Food co-ops themselves, under increasing pressure to stay relevant as the supermarket chains offer natural and local foods, could solidify their future by expanding into the energy sector.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but Co-op Power in Massachusetts and Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota are thriving examples of what I have in mind.  Both are particularly attuned to serving low-income consumers, who tend to get left behind as technology evolves and opportunity breeds complexity. Consumers have the right to seize control of how they use the electricity grid; the best way to make that happen is for them to pool their resources and cooperate.  But it will only happen if those of us who understand cooperatives spread the word among electric consumers and policymakers.


Donald M. Kreis, an attorney,  is New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate.  He also serves on the board of We Own It, a nonprofit that promotes grassroots organizing among members of rural electric cooperatives and other co-ops.  He is a past president of the Cooperative Fund of New England and the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society.


Harnessing The Latent Capacity Of Cooperatives To Build A Better World Now

If you’re like me, you’re probably growing frustrated hearing the lofty promises of this campaign season, everything from taking on the establishment and revolution to the other end of the dial about embracing a stagnant status quo. What if we didn’t need to wait every fourth November to learn which Presidential candidate’s policies will be shaping our lives? What if we could take control of our own lives and communities with ownership and voice in the businesses that shape our local economies? And what if we could do it now?

I am convinced the Cooperatives for a Better World (CBW) initiative is making this exact case. CBW positions cooperatives –not politics or big business- at the center of our civic discourse so we the people can direct the change we want to see in our lives and our local communities.

CCA Global Partners CEO Howard Brodsky, CBW’s lead organizer, is mobilizing the global cooperative movement toward this end. Brodsky spoke before the IUPUI’s Lilly School of Philanthropy and Tocqueville Program on April 26th at the Indianapolis campus. The university and co-op development community (represented by the Indiana Cooperative Development Center) had the privilege of being among the first to hear about the ambitious CBW initiative, and we would like to share the experience with you.

The CBW initiative takes its cue from the goals of the International Cooperative Alliance’s Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade calling for the “co-operative form of business by 2020 to become:

  • The acknowledged leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability.
  • The model preferred by people.
  • The fastest growing form of enterprise.

How does the CBW do this? As of right now, there are three major components of the initiative planned.

Initiative One draws together cooperative executives and association leaders to mobilize large groups of cooperative stakeholders to carry forth the Blueprint.

  1. The millions of individuals who are employed at cooperatives will become the frontline advocates for the movement (for the U.S., this is roughly 2 million individuals).
  2. The billion + member-owners of the cooperative movement will enhance the sector and drive the creation of new cooperatives (U.S. 120 million Americans) through sharing the inspirational stories of ownership that have shaped their success.
  3. The entire cooperative movement focuses outward to advocate for the cooperative business model in greater society and public policy. As is said by co-op big thinkers: “there is a co-op solution for every problem.”

Initiative Two of CBW works to focus on the principles of cooperation by simply getting co-ops to:

  1. Do cooperative-to-cooperative business together, or...
  2. Where no cooperatives exist to meet a business need, help to fill that gap by creating a new cooperative.

Initiative Three of CBW seeks to enhance the accessibility of the cooperative movement by launching a cooperative marketplace, an Amazon-of-cooperatives that allows the masses to not just participate in but truly own the sharing economy. Because that is what co-ops are, the ultimate evolution of the sharing economy through organizing ownership of businesses to the people that buy, use, or deliver the goods and services within our local, regional and global marketplace. This cooperative marketplace incentivizes co-ops to do business on the site, drive consumers to cooperatives in their local community, and share margins with consumers (you know, patronage!). The marketplace will launch this year.

The CBW initiative is remarkable in its simplicity in that it embraces an asset based community development approach, harnessing the latent capacity of the cooperative movement for simple yet impactful socio-economic transformation. The initiatives translate into:

  • Greater social equity and individual opportunity.
  • More jobs that provide for more fulfilling, higher quality careers with higher wages. And since   these jobs are provided by your co-op, they cannot be shipped overseas.
  • Greater community wealth, owned by and rooted in the communities they serve
  • Stronger cooperative businesses.
  • More accessible, resilient cooperative associations that are then better positioned to service their member-cooperatives.
  • Enhanced public and small business entrepreneurship.
  • A more robust civic democracy that better keeps the excesses of capitalism and politics in check.

These initiatives all work in parallel with each other to complement and reinforce these plans.

The CBW has enormous potential to not only change co-ops, but the world. If you can imagine a better way of doing business to empower not one but all of us to build a better world and see our bright future secured, ask yourself what if we started today? What if we the people were the center of business in the 21st century? What if we chose cooperatives?

Watch and share the video of Brodsky's presentation. Start the conversation.

If you are like me and are anxious to have the latest news as each piece of the initiative gets rolled out, go here and sign up for email alerts. Don’t stop there; forward widely to your friends and networks to get them signed up. Opportunity awaits, we should be talking about it, all-hands-on-deck!

I hope you will join us as we leverage the co-op model to make a better world now!

How Crowdfunding Becomes Stewardship: Labor, Emotions, and Growing the Pie

Crowdfunding can seem ideal for building co-op platforms on the Internet.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Desperation and necessity inspires most co-ops. They can only accept non-extractive investment, which puts venture capital out of the picture. And so, co-ops view crowdfunding as a digital barn-raiser, one that builds community without tapping it out.

In practice, many co-ops struggle with crowdfunding. Very few campaigns lead to what Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart calls “deep acting,” our genuine emotions at work. Instead, they fall back on “surface acting,” the kind of behaviour associated with fake smiles and guilt parties. Most often, they strain volunteers, stress supporters, and fail at their goals.

Marketing has skewed our view of crowdfunding and how we think and feel about community.

What does “community” really mean here? Community is collective action with a shared story. We join clubs, co-ops, and campaigns that offer material benefits — things that matter to us on a daily basis — and we stay because of solidarity with our peers and a purpose we can achieve together. The more we act collectively, the more we strengthen these incentives.

Incorporating as a co-op is a long way from building community. There’s a grain of truth to idea that co-ops are the original crowdfunding, but people experience them in organizing and campaigns, not bylaws or business plans.

We can’t extract generosity through crowdfunding — that is what marketing tries to do in platform capitalism.

Instead, we must form relationships rooted in reciprocity and generosity.

I learned these lessons last year, when I partnered with Loconomics to grow their membership and crowdfund their platform.

On paper, Loconomics had a beautiful model: a local services co-op owned by the freelancers doing the work. The user-owners get tools for booking clients, a growing marketplace, and a dividend based on the co-op’s performance. But the appeal of joining a co-op needed as much validation as the platform itself.

To research needs, I interviewed a representative group of a dozen freelancers — some with their own client base, and others finding odd jobs on platforms like TaskRabbit. Nobody felt misinformed, much less exploited, with what they get through on-demand service platforms. However, they craved the feeling of belonging to something bigger. A part-time plumber with a philosophy degree described the ideal as “less a client base, more a partner base” — in other words, a co-op. But, would anyone pay to join one?

People will give endless feedback on ideas, but only commit if they see value. A sure way to make this shift is through opportunities for people can test a prototype and express their emotions.

Emotions on the Internet

“All emotion is involuntary when genuine,” says Mark Twain’s online ghost.

I believe this rings true for anyone building co-ops, maybe more than the first cooperative principle of “voluntary and open membership.” And for anyone who has run a crowdfunding campaign, mobilizing genuine emotion can sound like difficult, draining work.

After working in dozens of campaigns, I’ve seen a tension play out between crowdfunding and membership. Crowdfunding is a one-off moment of collection action, but when the projects that we care for also take care of us, people come together and stay together.

How might we reinvent crowdfunding so collective action continues?

It’s tempting to search for answers on the Internet. But before going online, consider the case of a real-life forest. Neera M. Singh, author of a 2013 forest conservation study in Odisha, India, found a region that challenges the logic of paying individuals to manage resources as market goods. She observed how villagers harvest only what food and wood they need from the forest, and sing songs celebrating its cool breeze, too. Singh concluded that community stewardship sustains thousands of villages because people organize their labor both effectively — forming accountable relationships around their work, and affectively — developing shared identity in the process.

The story of stewardship in Odisha shows another side of crowdfunding. While starting a project might depend on pooling financial contributions, sustaining it requires emotional investment.

How do emotions look in Internet marketing? Query your favorite search engine for “women laughing alone with salad,” and you’ll see a cliché used to evoke health and happiness.

I suggest taking a look if you haven’t recently — partly because it’s hard not to laugh at the fake emotions, but mainly because a similar caricature shows up in how on-demand service platforms market themselves. TaskRabbit, for example, portrays images of smiling helpers cleaning kitchens while women hold babies. Unlike stock photos, however, we meet TaskRabbit in real life.

  Source: Taskrabbit - Fair Use.

Source: Taskrabbit - Fair Use.

Their marketing may be full of clichés, but on-demand service platforms are full of opportunities for us to become emotionally invested.

Platforms like TaskRabbit leverage our emotional investment to grow their user base. Their user experience is designed to delight us, especially at key moments around transactions. When interacting with a chef, host, or any service provider who loves their job/gig, we enjoy acts of kindness that have little to do with rating systems. But platforms do not support self-organizing. Instead they leverage community activity to increase user engagement, and resist attempts to leave. TaskRabbit charges a $500 finder’s fee to move consumer-provider relationship off of its platform.

This is the norm in platform capitalism: products extract value from transactions for outside investors. The platforms connect us to resources more than they operate as a resource themselves or a place to gather. In this context, our emotions are more like “laughing alone with salad” and less like singing together in Odisha’s forests.

The real issue with emotions lies with the conditions in which they are extracted. Emotions on the Internet can be better understood with Hochschild’s theory of “emotional labor,” which describes how we adapt our emotional expressions in deep and superficial ways to align with workplace rules. While Singh found villagers laboring happily, defying market logic, Hochschild argued more than 30 years ago that emotions get commodified in a capitalist service economy.

Looking at how emotions change over time, however, shows how people become invested. Elizabeth Hoffman, in a 2016 study of worker co-ops, found that embracing emotion ultimately benefits democratic participation. How? As individuals get comfortable expressing themselves, they develop an identity as co-owners — their workplace and coworkers feel like “home” and “family.”

Such a transformative, humanizing experience contrast with how we relate to one another through marketing. It’s also the kind of place where investment grows into stewardship.

Barn-raisers for Stewardship

Happily, my partnership with Loconomics ended with them focusing on community before launching a product.

To see what invitation attracts people most, they swapped their full website for a simple sign-up page. And to learn about user experience, they welcomed service providers and clients to events where they could try the app, volunteer, or become owners. Getting together finally made it possible to experience what a community might feel like.

At a minimum, community is a shared feeling of belonging. These feelings well up when people come together, through book clubs and parties, and they evaporate when the organization shuts down, puts up a pay-wall, or simply has a change of heart. This precariousness is hidden, however, when a platform manages to balance user satisfaction and extraction.

Building community through crowdfunding plays out in a similar way. It starts with a goal of mobilizing contributions from many individuals. With enough incentives and excitement, the possibility of passing a funding threshold triggers collective action. This usually happens only once. And if a project does get funded, any future collective action depends on whoever owns and controls the value created. Without emotional investment in a cooperative arrangement, campaigns run the risk of ruining relationships over unmet expectations.

Marketing strategies extract generosity and resources by developing an audience, message, and call-to-action, like guilt parties where people leverage relationships unfairly.

For crowdfunding to become stewardship, we need rolling barn-raisers — activities for guests to co-create with their gifts, celebrate their accomplishments, and build again.

A barn-raiser is an organizing strategy for a cooperative alternative that involves people, invitation, and engagement (p-i-e):

  1. Connect with people. Audiences are passive, but people put emotions at the core of cooperation. Learn who might join the effort, and what they’re trying to get done.
  2. Make an invitation. Messages are static, but invitations cultivate voluntary and open membership. Define what you want to celebrate, together — in-person and/or online.
  3. Sustain engagement. A call-to-action limits inputs, but engagement supports democratic ownership and control. Seek participation more than financial contributions.

By starting small and learning as they go, barn-raisers can “grow the pie” for co-ops. Organizing a crowdfunding campaign can follow the same steps.

This is how a crowdfunding becomes stewardship: raising expectations, embracing the challenge, and sharing the value as community grows.

* * *

Danny Spitzberg believes that membership in community is vital for a democratic society — from bowling leagues to, well, whatever voluntary associations work for you.

For more thoughts & resources on this topic, sign up for the Peak Agency email letter or tweet @daspitzberg

A Better Co-op Democracy Without Elections?

 Photo by elizaIO via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by elizaIO via Wikimedia Commons

All large cooperative and membership organizations (nonprofits, worker-owned enterprises, etc.) that seek to govern themselves democratically face a perennial problem. How can an organization maintain member interest in matters of organizational governance year after year, and avoid management capture?

The path to a solution requires understanding that the nearly exclusive reliance on elections as the tool for selecting governing bodies is the core of the problem. While elections are generally assumed to be essential to large scale democracy today, there is an alternative and superior democratic tool.

I am not speaking of some sort of “direct” democracy, in which all members get to vote on all matters. Mass participation direct democracy, as well as candidate elections in large organizations, suffer from the problems of apathy, self-selection bias, and rational ignorance. When one's vote is one out of a huge number, and mathematically has a vanishingly minuscule chance of changing the outcome, it simply isn't rational to spend time learning about the issues or candidates – especially if that effort is multiplied for an individual who is a member of several would-be democratically governed organizations.

The better approach is a variant of the jury model developed in the Athenian democracy. The Ancient Greeks considered elections to be oligarchic (since only the wealthy and well-connected could win office), and viewed selection by lot to be essential to democracy. In Athenian democracy of the 4th Century BCE, nearly all boards of magistrates, courts, audit committees, agenda-setting councils, and even panels that adopted new laws were made up of citizens who were randomly selected. Only a handful of offices requiring special skills, such as generals, were elected.

Political scientists refer to the use of random selection to form a representative mini-public as sortition. In the past decade, around the world, in places like Canada, Iceland, Belgium and Australia, many governmental experiments with the use of sortition dealing with public policy matters have been implemented. Such juries have established municipal budgets in Australia, proposed constitutional amendments in Ireland, reviewed referendum initiatives in Oregon, and tackled thorny technology policies in Denmark. While most of the recent implementations have been in the public sphere, this democratic tool is a perfect fit for co-ops as well.

Very few members will keep on top of their co-op's issues year after year, but most members would be willing to focus on their co-op governance matters for a small amount of time, with modest compensation, knowing other regular members will do likewise in turn. In the context of a modern co-op, a representative sample of members (perhaps 12-24 members) could be randomly selected to, for example, act as a sort of nominating or hiring committee to select a board of directors, or evaluate (and if warranted, fire) management.

It doesn't make sense to select ongoing boards of trustees directly by lot, because the commitment level needed and investment of time is so great. But short duration representative juries that select the board members are an excellent way to assure ultimate authority and regular oversight by the ordinary members as a whole. To maximize the willingness of ordinary members to participate, these juries would be of short duration (only a few meetings) and their members would be compensated in some manner (a discount, catered meals during meetings, or direct payments). Relying on pure volunteerism for this task is dangerous as self-selection bias can allow unrepresentative special interests to dominate.

Let's take a hypothetical example of a cooperative whose members all want to have a balanced board that reflects the diversity of the membership. They all want a board that includes a member with a legal background, one with budget and bookkeeping experience, and one with lots of media skills. Suppose plenty of candidates meeting these criteria decide to run for the board in an election. Because of the problem of voter coordination, regardless of whether a block plurality, ranked-choice preferential, or other voting method is used, it could easily happen that the mix on the board that gets elected ends up failing to meet most of these criteria that all of the members believe are important. The board may turn out to be all white males without any media or bookkeeping experience.

The way that some co-ops try to overcome this problem is by having a nomination committee select a favored “slate.” For this to work, the election itself must be nominal or token, and it is the selection of the nominating committee that is the point of democratic challenge. With the jury model, a large representative nominating committee can be selected by lot. This randomly selected mini-public could interview potential board members and seek to come to a consensus about the best mix of people to form a balanced board. The election could be dispensed with or maintained, either merely pro forma or to give the membership a veto option.

The key here is to escape the straitjacket assumption that democracy means elections. Elections are one tool that may be used by a democracy, but other superior tools such as sortition need to be in our toolbox as well. To learn more about sortition and democracy, visit website of the Australia-based NewDemocracy Foundation based in Australia, and those interested in the potential of using sortition in New England can feel free to contact me via terrybour@gmail.com.

Terry Bouricius was a staff person at the Onion River Food Co-op (1978 – 1992), and served on its board of directors subsequently. He also served as a member of the Burlington, Vermont City Council (1981-1991), including a term as President, and as a member of the Vermont House of Representatives (1991-2001). He is currently working with an international consortium of democracy and sortition reformers that came out of a conference hosted by the Library of Alexandria, Egypt in 2015.

Posted on March 15, 2016 and filed under Feature Small, Author Guest.

Workers to Owners: How we are coming together as a field to transform companies, and the US economy

 Courtesy DAWI

Courtesy DAWI

I recently visited a 50+ employee company based in the Bay Area. We were in a typical conference room with a projector, glass walls, well-appointed plants, and absurdly comfortable chairs. Around the table were nine of the company’s leaders—the founder, three other members of the C-suite, and five supervisors in upper management. As they began introducing themselves, I noticed something. There was an odd feeling in the air.

One member of the C-suite fumbled over his title and rolled his eyes at himself. Another kept making little jokes that everyone half laughed at. They were acting as if they were in the awkward early minutes of a long-anticipated first date. It was a room chocked full of giddy executives. From what I could tell, there was nothing about me personally that created this anticipation. They were not intimidated or even particularly impressed by me. So I went on with my spiel, looking for cues on how to build a rapport and speak to their concerns.

As we got to the end of the Q&A session, the CFO asked, “So this is a real option for us, then, right?” In the silent pause that followed, all eyes fell intently on me. Here was the cause of their anxiety. Today, at this meeting, they were flirting with something big—the possibility of becoming worker-owned.

...transitioning existing business to democratic worker ownership is our best chance at jump-starting what could be the next chapter in our nation’s economy: economic democracy.

In the past year, I have had over a dozen of these conversations. Worker ownership is an attractive succession planning option for many businesses. Selling owners get liquidity for their shares and define their role moving forward, while maintaining the company’s values and rewarding the employees who helped the business succeed. With all of these benefits, though, the transition is not easy even for those businesses that are perfect candidates. For some, the first step is the longest and most difficult: coming to terms with the idea that you are actually selling the business. Many of these companies have been owned by the same one or two people for decades. This kind of transition is emotional. It is exciting. It is challenging but possible.

My role in this work echoes those same attributes. I believe that what our field is doing—transitioning existing business to democratic worker ownership—is our best chance at jump-starting what could be the next chapter in our nation’s economy: economic democracy. Tens of thousands of small businesses representing billions of dollars of wealth are for sale each year, and the number is only increasing as more baby boomer business owners retire. Without our intervention, these businesses could be sold to competitors or private equity firms, or they would liquidate and close their doors. By taking advantage of this opportunity, we can keep businesses open, thriving, and serving their communities, while normalizing the idea that companies should be owned and controlled by their workers. It is emotional, exciting, challenging but possible.

Organizations from around the country have come together as a collaborative to move the needle on this grand vision. This collaborative initiative, called Workers to Owners, includes the Cooperative Development Institute, the Cooperative Fund of New England, the Democracy at Work Institute, the ICA Group, the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, Project Equity, the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, the Working World, and more. We are working to raise awareness, build out the infrastructure needed to scale, identify new sources of capital, and otherwise make it easy and common for businesses to become worker-owned.

Back in the conference room, when the CFO asked me if worker ownership was a real option for their company, I was not sure of the best way to answer. The feasibility of the deal is dependent on the finances, after all, which had not yet been analyzed. And then there was the willingness of the somewhat hesitant owner to move forward. But they had heard me describe the process and explain the caveats for the past hour. Reiterating those details was not what they needed. “There’s still a lot to work out, but you’re on the road. And companies similar to yours have successfully transitioned in the past. There’s a community of support behind you, so if this does make sense for your company, we’re here to help you make it happen.”

I got a room full of nods and slight smiles. For the first time of the day, I was fully in sync with the group. Yes, cautiously optimistic. That’s how I feel, too.

To learn more about the Workers to Owners collaborative or becoming employee-owned, visit becomingEO.org. If you are interested in participating in this work, join us on April 11 in Minneapolis for our 1-day educational seminar on how to help businesses transition to worker ownership.

Camille Kerr co-directs the Democracy at Work Institute's Workers to Owners project, a collaboration of leading actors in the worker cooperative field, as well as stakeholders outside the field, to drive more conversions to worker ownership. Previously she worked as the Director of Research at the National Center for Employee Ownership, launching the organization’s outreach initiative and managing its various research projects. Camille speaks frequently about employee ownership and has produced and contributed to publications on a variety of topics related to alternative ownership structures. Camille also serves as chair of the board of directors for Prospera (formerly WAGES—Women's Action to Gain Economic Security), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the economic and social wellbeing of low-income women through cooperative business ownership. She earned a J.D. from the University Of Cincinnati College Of Law, where she was an Arthur Russell Morgan Fellow for Human Rights and graduated cum laude.

Posted on February 24, 2016 and filed under Author Camille Kerr, Feature Small.

The Thin Community We Get From Marketing: On Pirate Metrics and the Cooperative Alternative

Guest Post by Danny Spitzberg. Cross-posted from Medium.

Community is a hot commodity.

This creates an awkward situation for marketing. Tasked with growing revenue for apps and platforms, marketing adds a community layer without sharing ownership or control with users. But for co-ops — and really, any democratic endeavor — shared power is fundamental.

How can co-ops engage users without losing their democratic backbone?

I propose a set of metrics for online platforms to cultivate community power from within, not as a thin layer on top.

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor-activist, gives instructions on how to “run your startup like a cult.” History may be on his side. As neighborly behaviour goes the way of the bowling league, a layer of social interaction on apps and platforms gives them a competitive edge.

Consider the sharing economy platforms that promise a sense of community. They’re among the most profitable, fastest-growing companies. Countless companies are hiring community managers, a new managerial class that even hosts meetups to exchange best practices. Airbnb genuinely believes their home-sharing hosts cultivate a sense of belonging. They’ve recently begun hiring political organizers to grow their community into a movement.

Beneath their community layer, however, these platforms are made up of users, investors, and engineers. Users have no ownership or control to make the platform work for them. But wherever marketing reaches cult-like levels of engagement, users cheerily overlook their lack of power.

As the digital economy grows, the future for users is virtual feudalism. At the same time, I am optimistic about “platform cooperatives” emerging where users can become members and owners.

Cooperatives that organize their membership can buck the trend of powerlessness.

Cooperatives are associations that organize to serve collective needs, especially when markets fail to do so. During wicked recessions, co-ops persevere and prosper.

Grain silos in ancient Mesopotamia and grain elevators in the Midwest are classic co-op examples, insuring members against market volatility and stabilizing commodity prices. Member-owners are the main investors in the co-op, so they make smart, democratic decisions. To continue creating value, they take collective pay cuts before making layoffs. For greater economic gains, they pool resources and form federations.

Although co-ops emerge from market failures, they tend to lose when markets bounce back or new players reach their niche. The most infamous case took place in Austin, TX, where Whole Foods Market took after beloved Wheatsville Food Co-op and grew into a nation-wide behemoth. Wheatsville still exists, however, thanks to its local and loyal members.

Co-op membership is so much more than a customer loyalty card or a paid app subscription.

On the Internet, I certainly believe co-ops need marketing to survive. Like any enterprise, co-ops have to communicate the unique value they offer in the marketplace. Users looking for music or freelancers looking for gigs have little tolerance for crappy apps and platforms. This holds true even for die-hard co-op enthusiasts.

Organizing matters more than marketing, however, because even if co-ops are competitive, they need to achieve their potential as democratic communities.

* * *

Let’s use Pirate Metrics for marketing, and Mutiny Metrics for member organizing

Marketing professionals familiar with Pirate Metrics use them to grow a user base like its their job. To be fair, that is their job. They add a community layer to make users happy, but the objective is the same: growth. Cooperatives are different than startups. Their promise of community ownership and control goes beyond marketing.

By showing the limits of Pirate Metrics, and drawing a lesson from pirate history, I propose a new set of metrics for organizing community.

Pirate Metrics

Back in 2007, Dave McClure introduced Pirate Metrics as a way for startup marketers (AKA “growth hackers”) to get traction with users and keep them engaged. He proposed the acronym AARRR(!):

  • Acquisition — users sign up for some product, subscription, etc.
  • Activation — they get started on the app or platform
  • Retention — they come back
  • Referral — they bring others
  • Revenue — they generate value for the platform

These metrics are strictly business.

To see how they work, consider Loomio, a New Zealand worker cooperative that built a decision-making platform. They raised over $100k via crowdfunding in 2012, and have grown their user base by applying Pirate Metrics to create a positive user experience, welcome emails to thank-you notes. People love Loomio. I love Loomio. But in terms of marketing, Loomio operates much like any startup.

For startups and co-ops, success depends mainly on operations.

Some of the most democratic operations in history were, in fact, pirate ships — despite their criminal ambitions. In fact, I recently became friends with a lawyer who swears by pirates. He recommended The Invisible Hook: The Law and Economics of Pirate ToleranceHere’s what I took away from it:

The ever-present “mutiny” element helped pirate ships become both competitive and democratic. On pirate ships, captains only earned 2x the rest of the crew, and could be replaced whenever they displayed cowardice or failed to go after a bounty. Occasionally, pirate ships would form a fleet for collective action against really big bounty. They also had many black crew members who were free men and participated at all levels, from crew to captain. The merchant marine, on the other hand, operated as a slave ship with 6x differences in income and a punitive approach to handling nearly everything. Mercantilism helped build empires, but even good commerce is hardly democracy.

As a metaphor and a moral tale, pirates have a lot more to offer.

Mutiny Metrics

I propose “Mutiny Metrics” as a starting point to build better community with cooperatives, guilds, and commons of all kinds. While marketing is about revenue, a basic necessity for any enterprise, organizing is about community power, a moral high-road.

The MORAL acronym stands for:

  • Membership — users become members and get a vote
  • Ownership — they contribute equity/investment
  • Reciprocity — they practice mutual aid
  • Association — they create a structure of belonging
  • Leveling — they maintain equality and fairness throughout the platform

These metrics are far from precise or linear, and their application for community engagement is open-ended.

For example, whenever Loomio’s team sees groups use the platform in innovative ways, the team invites them to share insights with others and play it forward with new users. Growing this community of practice can produce beautiful results for meaningful association, full of participation. And as Loomio grows their business in the US, they might get creative sharing ownership through community investment through a Direct Public Offering or better yet, through non-extractive finance. A quick review of Mutiny Metrics can generate many more ideas for better community.

* * *

A few reasons to consider Mutiny Metrics:

First, they focus attention on intention. For getting users and growing revenue, we have Pirate Metrics. Cultivating community power requires a different approach. And instead of prescribing actions, Mutiny Metrics are flexible and adaptive, a natural fit for what MobLab calls open campaigns.

Second, they invite pleasant surprises from community participation.Campaigners at SumOfUs hacked Pirate Metrics for community engagement, but their framework is still a one-to-many model. Mutiny Metrics go beyond user experience design to what we might call member experience co-design.

Finally, these metrics are a work in progress. Try them and see if they help make community participation easier or democracy more possible.

* * *

Danny Spitzberg believes that membership in community is vital for a democratic society — from bowling leagues to, well, whatever voluntary associations work for you.

For more thoughts & resources on this topic, sign up for the Peak Agency email letter or tweet @daspitzberg

How about REALLY Open Book Management?

For the past decade or so, a trend that has gone viral in the cooperative grocery sector is “Open Book Management,” a phrase coined by writer John Case of Inc Magazine in the late 1980s to describe a process invented by entrepreneur Jack Stack.

Of course neither Case nor Stack are cooperators.  Stack is credited with using his concept to transform a manufacturing firm in Springfield, Missouri from one whose shares were worth ten cents apiece to one with a share price of nearly $350.   This is a tribute to the power of information when it comes to profit maximization for investors, including employee-owners.  But is it good enough for a consumer cooperative – or, perhaps more importantly, how does it square with the Cooperative Values and Principles?

Open Book Management is not enough for consumer co-ops.  At least that’s my hypothesis.  I hereby propose that consumer co-ops go beyond Open Book Management (OBM) and embrace Really Open Book Management.  Call it ROBM – which, in the spirit of Robinhood, can be pronounced to rhyme with “mob ‘em.”

According to the web site of the National Center for Employee Ownership, Open Book Management has five essential attributes:

  • Sharing the income statement and balance sheet with most employees;
  • Sharing other data with employees (such as productivity and plant utilization/quality data);
  • Encouraging employees to use the information in their daily work;
  • Training employees to understand financial numbers; and
  • Sharing the financial results through a gainsharing program.

Really Open Book Management – ROBM – would involve extending these principles to the member-owners of consumer cooperatives.

Why do this?  Because the sixth of the seven Cooperative Principles is “Education, Training and Information.”  Too often, Principle Six is either ignored or treated like a mandate for co-ops to hold classes that are, while often really great, tangential to what the cooperative offering them actually does.  What the Rochdale Pioneers had in mind was the kind of education that empowered members to be knowledgeable about what their co-op really does and how it functions within its business sector as it competes with investor-owned companies.

Here is what Brett Fairbairn of the University of Saskatchewan, a great cooperative thinker, has to say on the subject in his seminal essay Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives:

It is all too easy for members to begin to take their co-operatives for granted, to lose sight of where they would be if the co-operative no longer existed. The longer a cooperative exists, the easier it is for members to forget why it was created. Transparency, as both an organizing principle and a communications approach, is fundamental to reproducing co-operative membership and loyalty from generation to generation (and even within a generation). What transparency requires is that members understand not only their co-operative, but also the industry or sector of which it is a part, so that they can see clearly what their co-operative does for them. This is the root of member loyalty.

Transparency can be a bit of a buzz-word in cooperative discourse, but Fairbairn is not one to emit platitudes without sufficient explanation.  Here’s what he means by transparency:

  • members are well-informed—frequently and through multiple channels—about business, service, and financial results

  • members understand the industry or sector of which their co-op is part; they can see “through” their coop to markets, forces, social and economic trends beyond
  • members see the different clusters or “pillars” of activity within their co-op, the incentives or crosssubsidizations that are built in, and accept the appropriateness of these
  • members understand the different interests or stakeholders in their co-op

Don’t those bullet points bear a striking resemblance to the ones the National Center for Employee Ownership use to describe the fundamentals of Open Book Management?

To put it another way, members of consumer co-ops in the grocery sector often find themselves wondering things like:  Why does the co-op sometimes seem as if it is more expensive than its investor-owned competition?  And when it truly is more expensive, why is this so?  How are the prices of the items on the shelves determined?  Why are popular employees sometimes fired?  Why can’t my co-op stock all of my favorite items, no matter how esoteric?  Why is this year’s patronage refund so mediocre, or absent altogether?

Open Book Management for Members – what I call here Really Open Book Management – would provide answers to these questions for those members who are interested.  It would also provide answers to questions members should be asking, if only they knew more about the grocery business, like:  How will food co-ops continue to thrive now that the investor-owned chains are aggressively moving into product lines and geographical areas that were once the exclusive domain of co-ops?  How can food co-ops reduce the ludicrous percentage of their revenue that are gobbled up by interchange fees paid to credit card processors?  (Hint:  Those “free” airline miles or store coupons your credit card provides are the proverbial not-really-free lunch.)  Why are some co-op insiders predicting that within five years there will be 30 percent fewer food co-ops in the U.S. because of mergers and outright business failures?  What do hidden and overt subsidies have to do with the fact that healthy local food is always more expensive than the unhealthy stuff that must be transported from distant places?  What are the trade-offs, in practical terms, among sustainability, employee compensation, patronage refunds, and affordable retail prices?

You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.  In 2012 I visited a food co-op a time zone or two away from me in New England and, while I was there, I decided to sign up as a member of the Co-op.  Immediately upon doing so, I was invited to the co-op’s weekly Open Book Management gathering.  Naturally, I accepted the invitation.

At this gathering, each of the co-op’s department heads was present, along with the general manager, CFO and other management types.  They went over the preceding week’s results, department by department, comparing them to the results that were budgeted and the results that were forecast immediately before the week began.  It was a frank discussion; most departments had failed to hit targeted sales figures.  What astonished me was learning that this weekly meeting was open to any member of the co-op who cared to attend.

This particular co-op happens to be located in the same city as the headquarters of a particularly high-flying supermarket chain that would love to grind the entire cooperative grocery sector into the dust.  So I asked the co-op’s GM whether he was afraid of the big bad chain exploiting this openness to gain a competitive edge.  He laughed, asking me if I truly believed the big bad chain did not already know everything it needed to know about his co-op and its operations.

Moral of the story?  The competitive considerations that lead so many co-ops to withhold operational details from members, given that membership is open to all, are overblown and typically wielded as excuses by managers who do not want to submit to the rigors of plenary member scrutiny.  I do not discount the possibility that in some circumstances Really Open Book Management would put competitively sensitive information into the hands of a co-op’s investor-owned competition.  My hypothesis?  It’s worth the gamble, given the kinds of gain in member trust and empowerment one could achieve by using Really Open Book Management.

Trade secrets are not what will allow cooperative grocers to prevail in the face of aggressive competition from the supermarket chains.  If co-ops are to survive and thrive in the retail food sector, it will be because the cooperatives cultivate something the chains can never have:  the complete trust of their customers, in light of the empowerment implicit in member-ownership.  The Rochdale Pioneers understood that cooperators can never out-scheme the schemers.  So let’s change the terms of the game by giving Really Open Book Management a try.


Guest post by Donald Kreis, a senior energy law fellow at Vermont Law School and a Vermont-based attorney whose practice involves advising co-ops and cooperators

Building Better Annual Meetings - Editors Weigh In

When considering ways to communicate the meaning of ownership to a co-op's members, there are few opportunities quite like the yearly annual meeting. As a yearly invitation to come together and exercise an authentic, democratic influence on the future of their grocery store, financial institution, electric utility, workplace, etc., annual meetings, at their best, serve as a powerful differentiating ritual that separates the  experience of membership from that of being a customer or employee in a for-profit firm.

Knives and forks, a community investment co-op.

In my role at Vancity, I think a lot about an inclusive, sustainable and also vibrant local economy. And I am a hypocrite. Oh, I’m not alone, all my colleagues and peers are hypocrites too. We support local businesses. Especially businesses that create a local food economy, hire people with barriers to employment, support new Canadians as they settle so they can be productive and happy in their new country, help companies trying to reduce the carbon emissions they put into the environment and help people reduce the carbons they emit in their lives.

Posted on October 8, 2015 and filed under Author William Azaroff, Feature Small.

How to Retire to the Co-op Commonwealth

We’ve dedicated our lives to cooperative, but our retirement funds to Wall Street. That has to change, and I recently decided to figure out how it might be done. While not simple, it’s possible, and suggests a way that the community of co-op supporters might mobilize substantial capital for the growth of our movement.

Posted on April 29, 2015 and filed under Author Matthew Cropp, Feature Small.