Across the Northwest, hundreds of co-ops are providing communities with needed goods and services as well as livelihoods for local workers. In keeping with the United Nations declaration of 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, which recognized the diversity of the co-operative movement around the world and urged governments to take measures aimed at creating a supportive environment for the development of co-operatives, an informal group of cooperators in the Northwest joined forces to conduct a regional cross-sector survey of existing and nascent cooperative businesses and professional service providers who assist these ventures.
The survey was distributed throughout the region, including Washington, Idaho and Oregon. A broad cross-section of co-ops responded to the survey. The survey’s 136 respondents represented 105 unique co-ops of all sizes in a wide range of sectors, including food, housing, energy, education, finance (credit unions) and a mix of consumer, producer and worker co-ops.
The findings support the notion that an active cooperative community exists in our region and that this community can be made stronger with increased access to resources. More than 55 percent of the respondents have been in operation for more than 10 years and have mature businesses. An encouraging 93% of co-ops responded that their business was holding steady or improving. This indicates substantial strength in the co-op sector compared with traditional businesses during these economically hard times.
It was also encouraging to note there is a strong preference for doing business with other co-ops. Interest in partnerships, mutual support, shared resources, reciprocity of sales, and reduced prices ranked high among respondents. 83% would mentor other co-ops by sharing lessons learned.
Though the survey illustrated the strength of the cooperative movement in the Northwest, it’s also recognized more can be done to raise the awareness of the benefits of the cooperative business model and encourage the growth of new and existing cooperatives. The vast majority of respondents saw a need for a cooperative loan fund as well as technical assistance, especially in strategic and business planning, marketing and financial projections. Additional suggestions offered to better serve the needs of cooperatives included:
- [Increased] Communications, outreach, education and networking
- A database of existing and prospective co-ops receiving technical assistance, who their providers are , and what their needs are.
- Expanded and continuing education on legal structures and tax accounting to include low-cost options for professional services in these areas.
- More educational events to improve individual and group understanding of the cooperative business model benefits.
- Education links to inform co-ops of USDA funding opportunities.
- Collaborative work with similar organizations.
- Cooperative directory of resources.
- Stronger community of practice with other co-op expertise; more sharing of best practices; more regional/online training; and access to information.
2012, the International Year of Co-operatives, has been a wonderful catalyst for bring attention to the cooperative business model. Our challenge now is to carry out the legacy and bring cooperatives out of the closet.
You are invited to view the full survey report on the Northwest Cooperative Development website at, www.nwcdc.coop.