Why a Co-op Water Cooler?

Photo source: Tim McAlpine

Photo source: Tim McAlpine

We are stronger together.

We co-ops are a splintered bunch. Credit Unions tend to be isolated from rest of the co-op world, food co-ops can be distinct from housing co-ops, who don't know the electric co-ops, who don't really interact with worker co-ops.

And yet society needs us. We are a big part of the solution to what ails our world of growing inequality, a polluted and warming environment, lack of access to local, healthy food, and jobs that don't pay a living wage. And to transform our society to one that starts to heal these issues, we as cooperators need to be more connected. We need to learn from each other, engage, debate, discuss, and meet up.

My hope is that this new Co-op Water Cooler can be part of the connectivity. I look forward to all the discussions we're going to have with cooperators far and wide.

Hello and welcome!

William Azaroff


Welcome to the Co-op Water Cooler.  I agreed to be an editor of the Co-op Water Cooler for two primary reasons:

  1. Matt asked me to
  2. We need a place where all views about the cooperative business model are welcome

While I am confident at times that I will disagree with the opinions voiced by other editors and commentators that is a big part of what co-ops are or at least should be all about.

Democracy is messy, it can be uncomfortable, and it challenges us in ways we often would prefer not to be challenged. It is also how we grow, evolve and become more tolerant of views that are different than our own.  We all live in an era when so much information is available yet so much of what we choose to hear is the echo chamber of our own views.

I look forward to this forum being a place where we read, hear and connect with those that care about co-ops and seek to make us even better. 

Upon her induction into the Cooperative Hall of Fame Jean Jantzen formerly of CHS & HealthPartners said, “Cooperatives give ordinary people the ability to accomplish extraordinary things.” Let’s be extraordinary together.

Adam Schwartz


What we are seeing when we take a step back and look at the global economy outside the realm of what we know in the U.S. to be the 'way things are' is a world that is questioning and considering alternative economic models that may be, could be, a better option to the failing communist, fascist or capitalist states we have seen in our combined histories fail human nature. What's happening in Cuba right now is a great social experiment for this not-new-but-new-to-them economic model and it is already showing its pros louder than its cons. Cooperatives are NOT the answer to all the world's ills. The Cooperative Principles will never cure cancer sitting on a sign on your wall. And there are many instances where the cooperative model doesn't fit the business or community needs at hand. But it is time. Time for this country to take a serious look at where we are headed, and decide if we are going to need to fail completely before we try to make some changes that could save us the trouble of hitting rock bottom.

The Co-op Water Cooler needs to exist as a testing laboratory. To put the concept of a cooperative economy in a petri-dish and have us all run tests on the idea as an economic turning point. To poke it, prod it, combine it with other things, germinate it and see what it grows into. Not a place to lay laurel wreaths across our heads and celebrate victories we have not yet won, but a place to ask questions, share learning, test hypothesis and build stronger cases for the real-life opportunities to insert cooperative solutions into places in our real-life economies where the walls are crumbling around us. A place to grow and strengthen our concepts so that they can stand against the wind and rain of those who would rather see this alternative option fall weakly to the ground. The place to train and build and gain certainty in our concepts before dashing forward as 'the answer to the world's problems.'

This is not a place to cheer-lead among each other, but to try to see where we are weak, so we can make the cooperative model stronger. To quote one of my favorite authors, Earnest Hemingway said, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Let's use the Co-op Water Cooler to find where we are broken and to make us stronger.  

I look forward to much debate on everything co-op.

Holly Fearing


Few people on the planet share, connect, and collaborate like cooperators. As a credit union professional I've experienced first-hand how fervently, albeit imperfectly, we believe in the sixth cooperative principle. We build things together, help one another understand critical issues, and work together to strengthen the credit union movement. Yet, when I ask credit unions about their work with other cooperatives, I find that the examples are too few, for too little time, and with too little lasting impact.

For years I thought it was only credit unions. Maybe our little part of the cooperative world was uniquely negligent when it comes to working with the greater cooperative movement. Maybe credit unions are simply the black sheep of the cooperative family. Maybe it's our fault.

Then I started working and talking with other cooperative sectors. Turns out, we've all created silos. Worker co-ops work incredibly well with worker co-ops. Producer co-ops collaborate and cooperate with other producer co-ops. Purchasing co-ops have dozens of purchasing co-ops on speed dial. Worker co-ops are worker co-ops, producer co-ops are producer co-ops, credit unions are credit unions, purchasing co-ops are purchasing co-ops, and never the twain shall meet.

This is not the spirit of the sixth cooperative principle, and something needs to be done about it. The social web provides a golden opportunity to build a thriving online meeting place for cooperators of all types to learn together, challenge status quo, celebrate successes, understand failures, and strengthen the worldwide cooperative movement. We need a virtual water cooler. So, why not build one?

Matt Davis


The word “cooperative” holds different meanings for people, whether they remain at a distance or if they are intrinsically involved with cooperatives. Is “cooperative” a noun, is it a verb, is it an adjective or perhaps an idiom? Does it describe a place, a type of business, a life-style? Is it a means to grow personal wealth (or maybe it’s a mean to personal growth), is it a means to share wealth…does it focus on the member, does it focus on the consumer or does it focus on improving and empowering the community where it resides? The truth is, the word “cooperative” can accurately describe all of the above and much more, and there is truth in application in all the above when it comes to cooperative enterprises.

In the “cooperative” world in which we exist, we live in a big tent. The tent includes the breadth of political beliefs and leanings, we have socialists and we have capitalists; to some being in the tent is central to one’s purpose in life and to another it is singularly the type of business one prefers; we have “purists” and we have “participants.” We have farmers, window makers, produce clerks, financial services CEO’s, stationers, doctors, waste haulers, residents…to name only a few. In our diversity, we as deep as we are wide. Yet, we are cut from the same cloth. While we can speak in different vernacular, we follow the same business model, we are servants to the same principles and values. No matter what may be your choice, you fit in the cooperative tent.

I think what Co-op Water Cooler can accomplish is to better bring together the cooperative community. Through the posting of articles that present an abundance of diverse “co-op” thought, through elevated discourse and the sharing of ideas, the Co-op Water Cooler can help make a difference. After all, we are all in this together.

Tom Decker


It’s time we had a chat about our civil society, the “third sector” comprised of nonprofits, social enterprise, and co-operatives. Let’s focus on co-ops.
 
Co-operatives offer immense potential for individual empowerment and community development. Right now there are over 130 million Americans with over 300 million co-op memberships, which is truly impressive. The American co-op economy employs over a million people, generating over $650 billion in revenue annually. When you purchase your groceries, there is a good chance that an agricultural co-op owned by farmers produced your food. If you live in rural America, chances are you are part of a 900+ network of electric co-operatives, along with 42 million other mostly rural Americans.
 
If co-operatives are supposed to be a major part of bolstering civil society, what gives? Where are co-ops at in public policy debates at national and state levels? Why aren’t they in the development toolbox of economic development groups? More specifically, why aren’t a significant number of the 130 million Americans talking about and championing for co-ops?!

 
It seems obvious: we need a civic revival in our co-ops. If we can ignite the passions of millions of civic-minded Americans to work through their existing co-ops (and create news ones), then we have a serious movement on our hands. Instead of being the niche player, co-ops can challenge the role of money and centralized power in society.
 
We need the right tools to get there.
 
My intent is to create a broader dialogue through the Co-op Watercooler platform.

  • What are the governance and management innovations needed if co-operatives are truly about member and community empowerment? I am becoming convinced that the traditional top-down, systems-control model is not compatible in co-op enterprise.
  • How do we improve co-operative performance through networked support systems? Do co-ops vertically integrate, or might co-ops tap into something unique to the model through peer-to-peer linkage?
  • Are co-ops a force for fusing democracy into the economy at multiple levels (from staff, to management, to board, to other co-ops, communities and regions), or are they merely a market smoothing mechanism, intended to fill the gap where corporations refuse to play nice?
  • Can we take innovations from co-ops, and enhance nonprofits and social enterprise?

These were hot debates from the formation of Rochdale in the 1840’s, through the American co-op renaissance of the 1930’s that saw the rapid growth of credit unions and rural utility and agricultural co-ops. Considering the ineptitude of the dominant actors in our society and the economy in the last decade, it’s long past time for us to reengage the central importance of co-ops and their role in civil society.
 
I foresee respectful contestation. I look forward to the debate and dialogue. And I look forward to creating a better world with all of you.

Keith Taylor

Posted on March 22, 2015 and filed under Author Matt Davis, Feature Small.