A Cooperative's Northern Star

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone


In this month whose beauty is exhilarating yet fleeting, cooperatives stand testament to the enduring power of shared principles and local purpose.

October is a time of change outdoors, and reflection within. Of contrasts and constants. Of gathering in, and giving back. Of chilly nights under the gauzy gaze of a hunter’s moon, and warm days with the crackle and crunch of dried leaves underfoot.

In folklore and fact, poetry and popular imagination, October sweeps across the land in an orgy of color, as trees explode in showy masses of red and orange and yellow, while below, farm fields mellow from summer’s vibrant greens to autumn’s muted earth tones of russet and ocher. 

October’s beauty exhilarates us with its color-saturated cinematography, and saddens us with its quick curtain call. In such a month, it’s nice to celebrate something that’s enduring and evergreen; October is also Cooperative Month.

Cooperation, of course, is almost as old as humankind.

The modern, organized cooperative movement, though, dates only to 1844, when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was formed by some English artisans who wanted to provide themselves with butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal, four necessities none could easily afford alone. To guide their enterprise, these pioneers drafted a set of seven principles that has become the business equivalent of the mariner’s Polaris, a North Star that guides cooperatives to this day.

In the century-and-a-half since the Rochdale pioneers, cooperatives of all kinds have been formed, fanning out across the globe. Each has built its success on the firm foundation of these seven cooperative principles. Yet, unlike some businesses that form, find success and never look back, cooperatives constantly do so, reviewing and renewing their commitment to these core principles.

And in the process, cooperatives help over a billion people the world over save money, time and effort every day. There are cooperatives across this land and around the world delivering services ranging from banking to babysitting to housing to food to insurance. And, of course, to the electricity delivered to your home or business by your local electric cooperative.

Like the Rochdale pioneers, the founders of electric cooperatives in the 1930s and ’40s were average folks, farmers and merchants, homemakers and schoolteachers, who banded together to bring electricity to their rural communities. In 13 such communities throughout Virginia and in over 900 across the land, local men and women joined together in common cause, freeing themselves from long days of back-breaking labor, and long nights of darkness.

A cooperative may draw on the Rochdale principles for its purpose, but its enduring power draws on a source right at home, here and now: its local presence, neighbor helping neighbor.

Because a cooperative’s roots grow in local soil, its goal naturally is to enrich the soil it shares with its member-owners, its employees, and its board members. From the beginning, the health of both the community and the cooperative are one and the same.

So, what are these seven cooperative principles that stitch every cooperative together in a rich global tapestry? Well, no matter where it’s located or whether it delivers a product or a service, a cooperative is:

   a voluntary organization, open to all who are able to use its service;

   with democratic control;

   and economic participation by its member-owners;

   in a business that is autonomous, independent and controlled by these members;

   who are kept informed about their business by the cooperative;

   which works together with other cooperatives to achieve mutual goals;

   with one of them being the overall health of the community it serves.

Like the recurring rhythms of the earth that splash color across the October landscape, we believe cooperation will continue to exert a powerful pull on men and women from all walks of life, from local communities and faraway lands alike, as a very good way to do great things.



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