The demand by community members to start co-op businesses is rapidly increasing, but if you want to form a new co-op, available support to do so remains limited. This is not a new problem. Back in 1999, a small group of co-op developers—that is, technical assistance providers who help communities start co-op businesses—formed the organization I’ve directed for the past five years, CooperationWorks! (CW). Our initial members focused almost entirely on rural communities. Today, that network includes three dozen groups located in both rural and urban areas. Since 2008, we estimate network members have helped start over 1,000 new co-op businesses employing a total of more than 15,000 people and have developed over 4,000 housing co-op units.
The range of co-op businesses started is broad. Some are worker-owned; many are producer- or consumer-owned. Industries vary greatly too—from childcare to grocery to value-added agriculture, and many others. But we remain tiny. Our budget has never exceeded $200,000. We rely on membership dues and some small donor and foundation income, plus earned income we obtain from the annual intensive training we offer to educate future co-op developers. In 2019, 17 people completed that training. Over the years, we’ve helped train over 200 developers, building the field one person at a time.