A co-operative fund.

While here in Bologna, I’m thinking about those systemic advances we can make to accelerate the adoption of the co-operative model in BC. Many things we see here have grown up in this area and are inseparable from the local culture and economic ecosystem. Many of the aspects of the co-operative support system are hard to imagine being replicated back home. But there are definitely some things we’re seeing here that could be imported to support growth of coops in BC. Like I wrote in my previous post, a stronger coop sector in BC would be an important complement to the capitalist system and create greater equity and sustainability, augmenting governmental interventions.

We spent Wednesday morning visiting CoopFund, an economic support to startup coops and coops wanting to grow and develop. In Italy, all coops put 3% of net profits into a fund whose primary objective is to support new coops and expand the activities of existing coops. Their focus is on technological innovation, increasing employment opportunities, expanding into Southern Italy where there aren’t as many coops and expanding coop social enterprises into sectors such as health and integrating people with barriers to employment into the workforce.

When a coop is facing major challenges or insolvency, the fund is one of the refinancing agents along with local credit union equivalents and the coop apex organizations such as LegaCoop. The CoopFund also offers consulting services to the coop to help them through a difficult period.

I found it very interesting that the interest rate off the loans CoopFund makes can be variable based on terms and risk similar to commercial lending at home, but is also affected by the social outcomes the coop is delivering. If a social outcome of the coop creates employment, especially in barriered communities, the rate will be lower as it provides a general benefit to society. At traditional banks, social objectives don’t factor in at all – in fact those objectives can be perceived as distracting from the main economic objectives of the borrower and may lead to a higher risk profile and therefore higher rates. Here in Bologna the more the loan can be linked to social outcomes, the lower the rate. Rate is driven by alignment to values rather than solely to risk, as all loans have to meet a standard risk profile as a stage of application to the fund.

We do have a national coop fund now, finally. And the idea of the government requiring coops to create a national fund based on a percentage of net profits isn’t realistic or warranted. If a few key players came together to capitalize a fund, organizations like the Credit Union Foundation of BC, Vancity, MEC and others, working in concert with a provincial body governing economic and/or social development to ensure aligned outcomes, we could advance the creation of more coops.

As we see the trend towards solopreneurs and away from traditional employment options, the growth of worker coops kickstarted by a fund like this could create more opportunities for people to earn a higher standard of living for their work, have a greater sense of ownership and more collaborative workplaces and create more opportunities to those facing barriers. Such progress would be a win-win for employees, the government and the coop sector.

CoopFund specifically focused on Worker Buy Outs – having small businesses who have run into problems or have owners who want to sell their businesses sell to the workers who own the new business as a co-operative. I’ll post more on worker coops succession at another time.

Co-operatives and externalities.

I am struck by what an amazing opportunity it is to go back and revisit an experience that had a profound affect on one’s development. Nine years ago, my trip to visit the co-operative sector in Emilia-Romagna deepened my knowledge and understanding of coops and gave me a springboard to get more deeply involved in the coop movement. Now, with all the knowledge and experience I’ve developed over the last few years, I am back here and soaking in all I’m learning and seeing, framed by my more nuanced eyes.

Tours to coops start tomorrow. So far we’ve had two days of lectures by Stefano Zamagni, Vera Negri Zamagni and Flavio Delbono on the history of coops and co-operative economics.

In Stefano’s lecture, he spoke about coops as a complement to the standard corporate practices within the capitalist world. I have long thought of coops as serving market failures. I once had someone in the world of coops tell me that no one ever started a coop who wasn’t pissed off. As part of a market failure, a group of people can’t get something they need join together and do for themselves what no one would do for them. If their needs were being met somehow, they wouldn’t have started the coop. Virtually every Credit Union and coop I’ve ever met has a genesis story like this. In the 1940s, people couldn’t get credit to buy houses east of Main Street in Vancouver so they started Vancity. In the 1990s, a group of residents in Vancouver’s West End wanted to try sharing cars amongst themselves so they started Modo. Anyone who knows a coop well should recognize this narrative within their origin story.

What Professor Zamagni linked was beyond the small market failures that necessitated the development of local co-operatives, and spoke to the systemic market failures that capitalist enterprises produce such as income inequality and environmental exploitation. I am not an anti-capitalist, but I do see the flaws in the system. Things I care about deeply and believe are vital to the kind of society I want to live in and to a planet hospitable to people and animals are considered to be externalities in the capitalist model. They aren’t measured or given a cost and therefore become issues to be dealt with by governments or the commons.

Coops are a necessary complement to the capitalist model. They are governed by people who have aligned themselves around a common cause and so those externalities are often internalized. They operate at a human level. Worker coops will deal with the relatively shrinking wages faced by workers. Coops of all kinds are usually rooted in a place and so they care about the treatment of the environment their members live within.

One major challenge coops face is how to compete in an economy where people want cheaper and cheaper goods forcing down wages and creating a system where many people have less earning power to buy goods and services. If we join this race to the bottom, we’re not living up the co-operative principles. There are no easy answers, and coops face serious challenges, but are needed more than ever as a complement or counter balance to the downsides of capitalism.

Back to Bologna…

in June of 2009 I had an experience that would transform my career. I applied and was selected to join Vancity’s annual tour to the vibrant co-operative sector in Bologna, Italy. In the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, where Bologna is located, up to a third of the GDP is created directly by co-operatives. Consumer co-ops, worker co-ops, producer co-ops, social co-ops and others all contribute to a vibrant economy.

While in Bologna I blogged a lot and tried to make the most of my valuable time there. Since that time, I have become quite the self-progressed co-op geek. Although I had been a member of some co-ops in my life such as MEC and REI and I grew up visiting Vancity branches as a kid with my Mom, I didn’t know much. At the time I went to Bologna, I was living in a housing co-op where I was Treasurer, and I remember what I learned studying co-operative economics at the University of Bologna and visiting so many different co-ops on our tour made me realize how little I know about the model where I was elected as a governor.

If I hadn’t been to Bologna in 2009, I doubt I would have run for the board of Modo, where I have been a happy board member for over four years. I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to give the talks I have given on co-ops over the years.

And now, nine years after that first visit, I’m hours from leaving to go back to Bologna, leading this year’s tour of Vancity colleagues and community partners. I feel very privileged to return, to take a dive with my more experienced eyes into the academic and hands-on aspects of one of the world’s great co-op success areas. I am even missing my beloved Credit Union Water Cooler conference, which I never want to do.

I’ll be blogging, as I did nine years ago. So follow along, ask questions and leave a comment, and let’s explore the world of co-ops together.