Before this summer, I didn’t think much about the
specifics of the cooperative business model — or any other type of business
model, for that matter. Then, as a part of my summer internship, I was asked
to do a Perspective piece for the October issue of Cooperative Living,
since October is Cooperative Month.
While I still don’t pretend to be an expert on the
subject, I do have a much better understanding of business models than I did
Companies strive to succeed financially. The traditional
business model is made up of shareholders and customers. Companies will
ultimately make decisions based on what is deemed “best” for the company.
This means that in all likelihood, the desires of shareholders will likely
take precedence over the customers’ desires.
However, the cooperative business model has a distinct
advantage over others. As a member of a cooperative, you are truly a part of
the company. With a cooperative’s community-centric structure, the potential
for active involvement is there. You are not just another customer.
In a cooperative, the customer and the shareholder are one
and the same. Therefore, no balance of power between shareholder and
customer need exist. Customers are much more able to have a say in what they
expect, need, and want from their cooperative. In turn, their cooperative is
able to make decisions that truly have the customers’ best interests in
mind, without the ulterior motives that separate shareholders would induce.
The seven core principles of the cooperative business
Voluntary and Open
Democratic Member Control;
Members’ Economic Participation;
Autonomy and Independence;
Education, Training, and Information;
Cooperation Among Cooperatives; and
Concern for Community.
These ideas set cooperatives apart from other business
models, with an emphasis on member participation at every level.
Cooperatives are founded on these principles promoting
membership involvement and community. The principles date to 1844 and
Britain’s Rochdale Society, the first modern cooperative business. These
same basic principles continue to guide utility cooperatives today.
Discrepancies are bound to arise
no matter what the business model; a utopian system in which everyone is
content all of the time is simply not realistic, or
In reality, not everyone can be satisfied 100 percent of
the time. That statement is true on many different levels.
But as a hybrid customer AND shareholder in a cooperative,
you have the power to assert your opinion and to raise your concerns and
As a member-consumer, in the cooperative business model
your opinions carry more weight than they would in a traditional business
model; you have the potential to be an influential and active shareholder.
If you are passionate about an issue, then you can voice
your opinions and concerns, and they should be seriously taken into
consideration. Within the cooperative business model, I think that that is
much more likely to happen, and is certainly achievable. In a co-op, the
potential for genuine, positive change is there.
Apathy, among other factors, can flaw any system. It’s
important to be responsible for your own actions.
We all share the planet and we should uphold a level of
environmental stewardship, strive to preserve resources, limit waste, and be
environmentally responsible about our energy production and use.
Not everyone can serve on a co-op’s board of directors.
But everyone can turn off the light when they leave a room. Everyone can
take shorter showers. Everyone can adjust their thermostat settings a few
degrees warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter.
Small personal changes CAN make a difference. The amount
of energy conserved on a personal level may seem insignificant. However, if
everyone participates, and that small individual amount of energy conserved
is multiplied by the millions of cooperative members and their households,
then the amount of energy conserved would prove to be quite significant.
Participation, after all, is the very fabric of the
cooperative business model.
Amy Curtis is a senior at James Madison University.
She is currently studying in London.
This column is meant
to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to:
firstname.lastname@example.org (please enter “Perspective” in subject line), or send
written responses to Cooperative Living, Perspective, Attn. Bill
Sherrod, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058-2340.