Co-operatives are an underutilized model for running an enterprise. October 16-20 is International Co-operatives Week and I work for one of Canada’s pre-eminent co-ops, Vancity Credit Union. I am quite biased in my thinking that the world needs more co-operatives. I believe profits should serve all members and not just a handful of shareholders. The thing is that transforming a business from a corporation to a co-operative isn’t easy (shareholders aren’t fans of the move), so perhaps it’s more realistic for me to outline a few strategies for aligning your organizational purpose with the co-operative movement. Here are seven ways to embed co-operative principles in your organization.

Voluntary and open membership

Co-ops are open to anyone and everyone willing to use their skills and resources as well as accept the responsibility of membership.

In his bestselling book The Employee Experience Advantage, Futurist Jacob Morgan highlights that “the cultural environment is the vibe of your organization and the actions that are taken to create that vibe or feeling.” He describes that organizations with great culture might inspire employees to feel butterflies of anticipation during their commute to work. This is the kind of feeling that co-operatives aspire to by default.

You can develop this principle in your organization by enhancing diversity and welcoming different kinds of folks to your organization by making it the kind of place they want to be.

Democratic member control

Co-ops have stakeholders, not shareholders, so every member has a say in how decisions are made.

You might not get to a place where decisions on project direction or budget allocation will conform to a “one member, one vote” process. But there are many ways to be more open as an organization. Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio has earned much notoriety for his company’s principle of “radical transparency” – employees are expected to be open and honest with each other all the time. Authentic spaces for all stakeholders to voice their ideas or concerns are critical elements of democratic control.

You can develop this principle in your organization by giving employees – and even customers – more say in how decisions are made.  Start by being more open with information.

Member economic participation

Co-ops allocate surpluses of capital in ways that benefit members and their communities.

The thing I love about members is that it blurs the line between employee and customer. Co-operatives naturally want the best for their employees because this means the best outcomes for their customers … who are also members. Unfortunately, according to Fast Company’s Sarah Patterson, most employers “…have yet to cross the cultural chasm between seeing workers as servants of the organization and viewing them as deserving of the same levels of attention, dignity, and respect typically reserved for their highly valued customers.”

You can develop this principle in your organization by imagining your employees as your customers because they probably are and, if they are not, Henry Ford was on to something when he paid people enough to afford what his company made.

Autonomy and independence

Co-ops are self-help organizations controlled by members even when they’re engaged in partnerships with other stakeholders.

In one of the most challenging partnerships in terms of aligning the movement’s guiding principles with those of a key stakeholder, the National Football League’s (NFL) Green Bay Packers stand as one of the most successful sports franchises in North America. The team’s governance structure is in stark violation of the NFL’s rules. Plus saying the league doesn’t do a great job of aspiring to co-operative principles is an understatement. I chuckled a few weeks ago as Bill Simmons and his guests were discussing creative ways – like crowdfunding – to wrestle the ownership of the Washington franchise from its horrible owner because the model already exists.

You can develop this principle in your organization by being very diligent with your partners and deeply understanding how they do or don’t align with your vision and values. If it isn’t a great fit then you probably shouldn’t be in business with them.

Education, training and information

Co-ops provide education for members and employees so that they can contribute effectively to the organization and grow as human beings, too.

One of my favourite things about my work at Vancity is that our team has a multiplier effect. What I mean by this is that a co-operatives Learning & Development team is accountable for teaching employees how to teach. A great example of this principle is the Each One, Teach One program because it showcases how our employees share information and tips with the community (members and non-members alike) to enhance their financial savvy.

You can bring this principle to your organization by adopting a twofold approach to learning: first, make everything open-source and allow the community to access your stuff. Second, cultivate a train-the-trainer philosophy amongst employees to teaching folks specific tasks or big ideas comes naturally to them.

Co-operation among co-operatives

Co-ops are changing the world for the better by working – get this – cooperatively through local, national, regional, and international structures.

Co-opetition is probably going to be a leading ideology for the mid-twenty-first-century. But I’m biased because I already wrote about it for this blog. Co-ops share a lot with each other with the intent of raising everyone’s potential within the movement. We work together – more or less – to achieve similar business goals and make the world a better place. For example, as credit unions convert to new banking systems we share information with each other about system integration and training plans in order to make the transition as successful as possible. That’s because at the end of the day, members benefit (over 30% of Canadians are credit union members, so it makes an impact).

You can bring this principle to your organization by looking at competitors differently and figuring out how you might collaborate with them on something, like the way shipping containers allowed once rival companies to work together and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and make all the dollars, too).

Concern for community

Co-ops are making the communities in which their members live and work healthier and sustainable for the long term.

I’m literally demonstrating this principle right now. Your organization doesn’t need to be certified as a co-op to act like one. Organizations that integrate business outcomes, like profits, with societal needs, like literacy, clean water or poverty-reduction, are more likely to be relevant in the years to come, say HBR’s Mark R Kramer and Marc W. Pfitzer: “Companies that turn to collective impact will not only advance social progress but also find economic opportunities that their competitors miss.”

You can bring this principle to your organization by thinking of a community’s need and business outcomes as integrated, not as an employee volunteer project. Instead of volunteering in underprivileged neighbourhoods, create long-term living wage employment opportunities for folks from such communities.

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