Students for Cooperation 2013 founding meeting in Leeds

Could your group or society become a co-operative?

To become a co-operative, a group should fulfil the definition of a co-operative and follow the co-operative values and principles. This article will run through these, allowing you to assess whether or not your group could or should become a co-operative!

Student societies and groups often already follow a number of co-operative principles and values. Through following these your group could flourish  learning from, and becoming a proud part of a global movement for social change and economic democracy. Almost one billion people across the globe are members of co-ops, whilst over 250 million workers are directly employed by co-ops. Plus, you can then become a member of Students for Co-operation!

The co-operative model is very flexible, and is not restricted to any single organisational structure or form, nor to any particular part of society or the economy.

The commonly recognised definition of a co-operative is a bit of a mouthful:

A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.

Essentially, a co-operative is a group of people organising democratically to provide a beneficial service to themselves and their communities. Co-operatives are not charities, they’re an empowering means for self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Together these are the co-operative values.

Co-operatives also follow the seven Rochdale Principles, which have been developed and adapted over their 170 year history:

1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

Co-operatives are membership organisations, open to all persons able to use the co-op’s services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political, religious or any other such discrimination. Every member should willingly opt into membership! For a housing co-op, the members should be tenants. In a food co-op the members are usually customers or the workers. In a worker co-operative the members are the workers!

2nd Principle: Democratic member Control

Democracy should never be an afterthought. Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled and owned by their members, actively participating in setting the co-operative’s priorities and in making key decisions. Democratic structures are built on the basis of one member, one vote. If the co-operative is managed or run by a board or committee, then this committee is predominantly made up of elected members.

Your co-operative should keep an accurate and up-to-date membership list, and should actively encourage members to get involved in decision making. Effective, participatory democratic structures ensure that your co-operative benefits from the diverse experiences, backgrounds and knowledge of your membership, making decisions which are in the interest of the membership and the wider community.

3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation

Members contribute to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. Any money invested in the co-operative by members is not done for significant profits, but because they support the aims and ideals of the co-op. Members democratically allocate surpluses, or profit, for any or all of the following purposes:

  • Developing the cooperative, for example by investing in new equipment or training members;
  • Building up sufficient reserves, in case of emergencies or to save up for big investments;
  • Benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative, for example a food co-op could give money back to members proportional to how much they have spent at the co-op that year;
  • Supporting other activities approved by the membership. For example, members might decide that the co-op give money to a cause or campaign.
4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence

Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. The membership decides how the co-operative is run. If the co-op enters into agreements or contracts with other organisations then they do so on terms that ensure democratic control is retained by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy. For example student co-operatives can be student union societies, but should ensure that the students’ union doesn’t dictate how the co-operative operates.

5th Principle: Education, Training and Information

Cooperatives should provide education and training for those involved in running the co-op and making decisions, so they can contribute effectively to the cooperative, work can be distributed more fairly, members can make more informed decisions, and the co-op can avoid being overly reliant on a few hard working individuals.

Co-operatives should also promote the benefits of co-operation to the wider world!

6th Principle: Cooperation among Cooperatives

Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together. For example established co-ops can support new co-ops, co-ops can pro-actively learn from one another, share resources, purchase one another’s services, or support co-operatives in getting out of difficulties.

7th Principle: Concern for Community

While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their wider communities. Co-operatives shouldn’t benefit their members on a basis of exploiting others. For example, co-ops should consider their environmental impact, how they source any goods, or how they could better use surpluses or their resources to benefit society.

If you have any more queries, or would like to know more about becoming a co-operative then don’t hesitate to get in touch!