Noémi Giszpenc: Co-ops in Every Community

By Noémi Giszpenc, Executive Director of Cooperative Development Institute

BALLE followers are well aware that shared ownership is crucial for building real prosperity in our local economies. Democratic ownership, in which a group shares the responsibilities and the benefits of owning land or a business, has been practiced by human beings since there were human beings – individual or corporate ownership is a relatively new way of organizing ourselves. We have reason to believe that a healthy mix of ownership structures provides the best environment for local places to thrive.

In BALLE’s publication “Growing Local Living Economies,” authors Michael Shuman and Kate Poole identified a few specific shared enterprises that would contribute to healthy economic development. These included ways to promote local purchasing, such as a coupon book, local debit card, or local currency; business partnerships, such as a procurement cooperative, local business mall, or commercial land trust; community capital, such as a community loan fund or investor network; and entrepreneurship support, through incubators or business development companies.

The many forms of democratic ownership that can form the basis for an equitable and broadly shared prosperity – such as cooperatives, land trusts, co-housing, commons, and public assets – are not very well known in our country. That said, several organizations have stewarded, developed, and deepened knowledge about how to set up and maintain shared ownership enterprises. My organization, the Cooperative Development Institute, has been around since 1994, and we’re proud to be members of CooperationWorks!, the national network of professional cooperative developers. CW! provides professional development training opportunities and a vibrant network of peers. Some of us are set up as generalists, able to provide guidance to a wide range of cooperative enterprises within a state or region. (CDI, for example, provides education, training and technical assistance to cooperatively-structured enterprises in sectors such as food, agriculture, housing, energy, arts, and worker in New England and New York.) Others serve a particular type of co-op nationwide, such as the Democracy at Work Institute for worker co-ops, the Food Co-op Initiative for consumer grocery co-ops, and North American Students of Cooperation for student and other group living co-ops.

The job of a cooperative developer falls into three major categories. First, they may act as business developers, helping a group identify a feasible business strategy and implement sound plans. Secondly, they may guide groups through the organizational development of forming a leadership and decision-making system, education and training, and legal structures. Finally, co-op developers see enterprises in a larger context of their networks, policy environments, and business relationships, which can all benefit from wise counsel and proactive support as well. We’re increasingly seeing demand from business owners to assist in planning and carrying out a transition to employee ownership, which can be a winning strategy for growth and owner succession.

Categories: Share Ownership