CDS board

Board members in the early days of the Cooperative Development Services.

The philosophical underpinnings of cooperative businesses have been around since the dawn of humankind; the idea that we can mutually benefit by working together is pretty self-evident. As a business structure, however, cooperatives really took off during the Industrial Revolution—as one of a range of strategies to help working people preserve some agency in their own lives.

By the year 2012, when the United Nations celebrated the International Year of Cooperatives, cooperative businesses had blossomed into a remarkable range of structures and activities, including economic development, banking, farming, and dozens of other undertakings.

What binds all these cooperatives together are a set of principles first articulated in 1844 by a collection of weavers who formed the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers to form a consumer co-op that sold items like butter, flour, candles and tobacco. Although they’ve evolved over the years, the Rochdale Principles still serve as the fundamental tenets for cooperative structures. They include concepts like democratic ownership and management, a return of equity to owners, and a strong interest in community service.

Bridget McCann-Horn and John Manske from Cooperative Network in downtown Madison.

One of those principles—cooperation among cooperatives—is embodied by a number of organizations that work on behalf of all cooperatives. The Cooperative Network, based in Madison, Wisconsin, and Saint Paul, Minnesota, is one such group. The organization provides lobbying, education, and technical services on behalf of some 400 member-cooperatives (including Organic Valley).

In practice, this results in a wide-ranging mission that takes on issues like health care, tax reform, agriculture research, and rural broadband. In many of these concerns, the Cooperative Network functions as a link among the various parties involved. For instance, the group has brought telecommunications cooperatives together with legislators in Minnesota and Wisconsin and assisted in leveraging federal and state funding to connect rural communities.

Other activities are designed to increase the number of cooperatives functioning to benefit members and their communities. For instance, the organization recently launched a program in Madison to develop worker-owned cooperatives in Madison’s poorer neighborhoods. Unlike many corporate structures, the worker-owned model focuses on a living wage for workers and investing profits in a way that benefits the entire community.

The common thread that ties all these various activities together is a fundamental belief in the power of the cooperative business model to not only benefit their own members, but to benefit the wider communities in which they serve. “We like to think of ourselves as a ‘Coalition in a Box,’” explains Tom Liebe, who joined as president and CEO in 2015. “Our members’ combined stories of social responsibility and economic benefit are an unbeatable combination for public awareness and political success.”

Watch the Cooperative Network’s short animated video below:

Organic Valley is committed to supporting its local communities and is happy to sponsor Cooperative Network for its impact on the lives of community members.