It is important that the people involved in co-ops properly understand what it is that makes cooperation work and what destroys it. We need to understand how to get people to work jointly in their own best interest and how this can also be in the mutual interest of the membership in its entirety. Cooperation entails balancing the needs of the individual with those of the group, it allows the individual to maintain their sovereignty while benefiting from the rewards of joint action – combining self-help and mutual benefit.
Some very clear lessons arise from the practice of cooperation over many years in many different situations and we all need to learn from this accumulated experience. Regrettably, many of the people running enterprises that are officially cooperatives and mutuals appear to have lost sight of this important reality. The fact is that if co-ops are to thrive then they must be built upon a sound foundation of practices that foster and sustain cooperative behaviour.
The primacy of the common purpose
The starting point for any mutual endeavour is the existence of a common purpose and a prerequisite for successful cooperation is an agreed common purpose, to which members need to be fully committed. The common purpose motivates the people involved to cooperate and inspires their commitment. The common purpose should be the motivating force that drives the organization forward and be the basis of all activity. Examples of a common purpose include: in the case of in a consumer co-op - 'obtaining a fairer deal on goods or services for members', in the case of a worker co-op - 'securing the true value of their members knowledge, skills or labour', in the case of a credit union - 'securing interest rates that are fair to both savers and borrowers', in the case of a care co-op - 'providing compassionate care at an affordable cost', in the case of a producer co-op - 'securing a fair and consistent market for produce'.
Membership must have a real value
Members must continually be encouraged to demonstrate commitment to their enterprise and this normally includes contributing to the capital required to finance it and participating in its economic activities. ‘Free-riders’, those who enjoy the benefits of cooperation without making any contribution or commitment to it, cannot be countenanced otherwise cooperation will simply evaporate. Likewise, free membership, in which no value is placed upon joining, is also destructive. As with most things in life that appear to be free (i.e., requiring no commitment or incurring no cost), it will soon come to be regarded as worthless.
The building blocks of cooperation
To help our understanding of the practice of cooperation it is useful to consider the factors that are essential to the successful practice of cooperation, these should be seen as set of interlocking building blocks, which may be summarized as:
1. A Common purpose - as explained above.
2. Cohesion - means holding the group together. This relies upon a firm commitment to a common purpose and achieving a consensus about the specific objectives/outcomes to be achieved by the enterprise.
3. Voluntary association - Cooperation can only be a voluntary activity, it cannot be based upon any form of compulsion.
4. Leadership - Cooperation depends upon committed leadership at all levels – without it little or nothing will be achieved.
5. Commitment - Members must continually be encouraged to demonstrate commitment to their enterprise and this normally includes contributing to the capital required to finance it and participating in its economic activities.
6. Equivalence - Both voting power and benefits need to be shared equitably among members.
7. Ethical behaviour - Cooperation must be an ethically responsible activity, conducted by honest and fair-minded people.
8. Democratic Control - The control of co-ops must remain firmly in the hands of their members – and this means democratic control.
9. Capacity-building - Capacity-building is central to successful cooperation, for if people are to work together effectively they must possess the essential knowledge and skills to carry out their functions.
10. Rules - Every co-op must have rules that are clearly understood and observed by its members.