Principles Really Do Matter

Here’s a useful tool for ensuring that your co-operative remains true to co-operative principles – and hence continues to enjoy the co-operative advantage.

Principles Really Do Matter by Nathan Brown

Over the years, I have noticed that many co-operatives I have worked with or known who had suffered some sort of business crisis have had something in common.  They had lost sight of the Co-operative Principles at the heart of the business and the business problems were a symptom of a failing co-operative organisation.

The Co-operative Principles imbue co-ops with what is referred to by co-op geeks (hands up!) as “The Co-operative Advantage”, a very real but ever so intangible attribute that enables co-ops to succeed where other businesses might fail.  In all the focus on celebrating the co-operative advantage and the benefits that being a member of a co-op brings, it is sometimes easy to forget that they are a product of the application of the principles. So what can you do to ensure your co-op stays a co-op in deed as well as name?  Here are a few tips:

Get back to basics.  Be clear about your purpose or aims

A co-operative is based around common economic, social and/or cultural needs.  This is central to the internationally agreed definition of a co-operative.  Clarity about the needs you hold in common and want to address is vital to success.  Ignore the importance of shared and regularly acknowledged purpose at your peril.  There is a risk that ignoring your purpose can lead to “mission creep” as members with differing needs try to bend the co-op to meet those needs.  This can especially be the case if your membership processes require attention.  Eventually the co-op could cease to deliver what it was established for, or break into factionalism.  Sometimes your co-op may be able to address the developing needs of members, but this should be done as a strategic priority, not by stealth.  Sometimes the needs of the membership change but if an individual’s needs cannot be met by the co-op they can always leave – and start another one!  The open and voluntary nature of co-ops applies equally to leaving as to joining.

Sticking to the principles

It’s not difficult to audit yourselves on how you apply the Co-operative Principles, although sometimes some outside assistance can be useful.  It is also a highly educational experience for members both new and old alike.  As time, members, the trade sector and the technological environment change we may find better ways to implement the principles for shared benefit.

Take the 7 principles and then examine each one by one:

  • How does your co-operative implement the principle?
  • How does this contribute to your purpose or aims?
  • Do the ways you implement the principle pro-actively put that principle into practice or is it routine and “it’s what we’ve always done”?
  • Are members clear about why you implement the principles in that way?
  • Is this the most effective way to implement the principle?
  • Does the current way of implementing the principle cause friction or resistance among the membership?
  • Could this be done in a better or different or easier way?

You can find this and other useful thoughts at Nathan’s blog


It’s arrived! My Co-opoly game arrived yesterday.

Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives is a creative and exciting game designed for the growing cooperative movement. Games have been proven to be unique resources that shape the way people learn, work, and interact with one another, but Co-opoly is more than just a board game. It is an innovative way for aspiring and existing cooperators, as well as other interested parties, to discover co-ops and to practice cooperation.

People who have played the game call it “fun and engaging” as well as “a great teaching tool about how to build and sustain” cooperatives.

Can’t wait to start playing!

Will there be a game in Taunton during Co-ops Fortnight?

Elinor Ostrom

A powerful and moving tribute to the late Elinor Ostrom by the Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective :

“Lin Ostrom died on this past Tuesday, June 12th, but there is no tragedy in the loss. We certainly doubt she spent her time feeling tragic about her cancer.

Yes, there is real pain in losing her, but the reasons for celebrating are just as real and much more abundant.  Her life contributed mightily toward reversing a major tragedy for all species on Mother Earth—that profound mistake in thinking known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

A few of us here at GEO had the immense pleasure and great privilege of working with a team from the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University in Bloomington on the Collective Action issue we published a year ago this coming September. One of our collective members, Michael Johnson, also met her in Amherst, MA, at a dinner that the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives held for her. Everyone in attendance was impressed with her razor-sharp mind, but also charmed by her simplicity and down-to-earth graciousness. She may have known even then that she had cancer, as she continued working through the last year of her life until shortly before her passing. A rather impressive way to deal with the knowledge of one’s imminent death, no?

Another awesome message came from her relentless and joyful focus on what needed to be done to make the world better at all levels of her life. This seemed to free her from her being mired in that endless status-seeking in which so many of us are trapped in order to validate our lives to ourselves. Prestige seemed to be a big nuisance to her even as she turned it to the advantage of her work with a twinkle in her eye. Oh! that we should all be just a bit more free of that absurd Sisyphean effort.

Finally, her legacy includes a working community of scholars in deep solidarity with her at Indiana University and beyond. A stunning resource to pass on to all of us. Let us hope and help in any way asked that the ‘Workshop’ community deals with the huge transition that faces them with as much freedom from the nemesis of rivalry and status-seeking as is necessary to keep the Workshop on the course she and Vincent, her husband, set it on.

Her’s was an awesome life lived fully to the end. May we all continue to nurture her legacy.”

-The GEO Collective

Co-operative skills

What we mean by co-operative skills is the skill-set you need to be able to co-operate effectively – i.e. work with others in a collective, non-hierarchical, democratically managed organisational structure.

Co-operative skills include:

  1. Communication skills (understanding the essential elements of communication, i.e. sending and receiving messages, and minimising ‘noise’)
  2. Meetings and decision-making skills
  3. Conflict management
  4. Understanding how to avoid potential conflict caused by poor governance or poorly planned growth.

It has been suggested that Emotional Intelligence is a necessary basis for the development of co-operative skills, and if we assume that what we mean by that is self-knowledge and self-awareness, reflection, empathy and social awareness, then common sense would suggest such attributes are indeed essential. Here’s a brief summary of current understanding of emotional intelligence, a look at some of the skills and how we can improve our own emotional intelligence.

Whether or not it’s possible to identify and measure emotional intelligence, some of the basic requirements for co-operative working – such as good communication skills and the ability to behave assertively (instead of being passive, aggressive or manipulative) require self-knowledge, social awareness and empathy.

It’s my belief that such skills are not innate, and can be learned – indeed if children were taught co-operative skills in the classroom they would be better equipped to help build the better world we all want to see.

The elements above are all described and explained in the various topic areas of the website – with games, exercises, and links to other websites and sources of information.