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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Don't Try to Develop a Co-op Until You do This

August 20, 2019
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I am going to make what I’m sure will be a contentious claim: no organization that is not itself cooperatively organized has any business engaging in cooperative development.

On the face of it, this shouldn’t be a contentious sentiment, any more than saying that someone who wants to get paid to teach others to play the piano should be a piano player themselves . However, given the current makeup of much of the cooperative development sector, I’m guessing that this suggestion will rub more than a few people the wrong way.

Specifically, I imagine, this will ruffle the feathers of the many people who have received foundation or government dollars to do co-op development through a nonprofit organization…because, of course, nonprofit doesn’t mean non-hierarchical. Most nonprofits are not democratically managed and, quite frankly, it often shows in the work.

In order to teach other people to do a thing, it is necessary that you yourself have experience doing that thing. And, of course, the more experience you have doing a thing, the more you will be able to teach to others. If, on the other hand, your experience of something comes exclusively through having read about it, or having talked about it to other people who do have the experience, what you will be able to convey to others will be limited and, of necessity, decontextualized.

It will be decontextualized because second-hand knowledge necessarily lacks the embeddedness in lived experience that gives first-hand knowledge its depth. How can I convey to you what it’s like to live in a rainforest if all I’ve ever done is read back issues of National Geographic? If that is the source of all my knowledge about rainforests, how can I be expected to give useful advice to someone who’s actually out there building themselves a shelter beneath that broad green canopy?

And yet, sadly, this is the reality in much of the cooperative development field. Organizations need funding and they see foundation RFPs looking for worker co-op developers. So they read up on Mondragon and submit their grant application. The funders, generally, are not experienced cooperators themselves and so are ill-suited to recognize or understand the shortcomings of the hierarchical nonprofit as a co-op developer (though the non-profit may be wonderfully suited to other activities). The result is that a lot of Nat Geo subscribers have ended up getting funding to advise new arrivals on living in the Amazon, while the locals who’ve been doing it for generations have been largely ignored.

But this is not to say that nonprofits should not be doing cooperative development. Indeed, nonprofits are and will likely remain a hugely important part of the co-op training and support ecosystem. However, before a nonprofit engages in providing cooperative development assistance to others, they should be required to have first instituted democratic management practices in their own organization. Co-op development starts at home. And if you can’t manage it in your own organization, you really shouldn’t be trying to teach it to others – “cooperation for thee, but not for me” is not a good look for our movement.

By starting their co-op development work with first transforming themselves into honest-to-goodness cooperators, working in a democratically-managed organization, nonprofit staff will not only have the ability to speak from personal experience about the benefits of cooperative structure, they will be keenly aware of where the problems and pain points can arise in co-ops (as they do in all types of enterprise). And apart from providing staffers with a much more profound understanding of cooperation than can be had by reading even the best GEO articles, this experience will also lend staff credibility in their work with prospective worker-owners. I don’t want to hear about how wonderful cooperation is from someone who isn’t practicing it in their own lives, I want to hear about it from someone who has not only been there and read the book about it, but who’s made the place their home...and who’s done it successfully.

Now, I expect that some will object that non-democratically managed nonprofits have done, and are doing, what seems to be successful co-op development work – and this is quite true. However, the benefits of a cooperatively managed workplace are real and non-profit staff have as much a right to them as anybody. If the staff and management of a non-profit are actually convinced of the benefits of working cooperatively, why would they not want to implement such an arrangement in their own workplace?  As Kori Kanayama writes in a recent Nonprofit Quarterly article, Nonprofits Promote More Democratic Workplaces,

“We do not own our nonprofits, of course; by law, we steward them. But the ethos of shared decision-making prevalent in worker co-ops is not foreign to our sector. We have experimented with the idea of collective “ownership” of organizational agendas for at least a half-century; it is well past time to begin a serious effort to build more formal organizational systems that make best use of our collective energy and intelligence.” [emphasis added]

Fortunately, we already have a couple of good models for how non-profits can democratically govern themselves. Our colleagues at the SELC, for instance, have helpfully provided a number of resources for non-profits who want to embody the cooperative ethos, not just talk about it. So check out their resources and get involved with their network of like-minded people – your organization and the cooperative movement will both be better for it.


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