Expanding Cooperative Knowledge at the 2016 Cooperative Leadership Forum

By Hannah Scott, OCDC Program Manager
 
Ohio Cooperative Development Center (OCDC) staff, along with representatives of credit unions and agricultural co-ops, convened in Oxford, Ohio in March for Mid America Cooperative Education, Inc.’s 2016 Cooperative Leadership Forum. The forum provided emerging leaders from across the Midwest the opportunity to learn from one another and experts in the field about the co-op model and cooperative leadership. 
 
The forum was hosted at the Miami University Marcum Center in Oxford, Ohio and included tours of nearby cooperatives. At Butler Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc. and CHACO Credit Union, speakers highlighted their “cooperative difference,” including their prioritization of members’ needs and participation, education efforts, and concern for community – which derive from the cooperative principles originally created by early cooperative movements.  
 
Cooperative Principles: What Makes Co-ops Different? 
The Rochdale Pioneers formed a cooperative society in mid-19thcentury England, outlining a set of principles for their business that would set them apart and place power among their members. The twelve principles outlined by the community are now recognized as the first set of co-op principles. 
 
To varying degrees, cooperatives today often follow a set of seven cooperative principles outlined by the International Cooperative Alliance that can be traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers. These principles include: 
•  Voluntary and open membership 
•  Democratic member control
•  Member economic participation 
•  Autonomy and independence 
•  Education, training and information 
•  Cooperation among cooperatives 
•  Concern for community 
(Zueli, K. & Cropp, R., Cooperatives: Principles and practices in the 21st century, UW Extension) 
 
Kimberly Roush, OCDC Program Assistant, explained the inspiration she gathered from these co-op visits. “Attending the Cooperative Leadership Forum was very inspiring.  Cooperatives are unique, often pulling together to solve a problem that otherwise they could not solve alone.  I also noticed another interesting result of the cooperative environment during the leadership forum—the overall culture of the cooperative employees who spoke with us.  The staff explained specific details about the reason for and the function of their cooperatives. Then they shared something more—talking about member activities and interaction with the community.  It was exciting to learn how the cooperative principles permeate the local culture through individual cooperation in community support and resolutions.”  
 
The forum also included visits from representatives of the Miami University Credit Union, Dairy Farmers of America, and COBA/Select Sires about how their co-ops benefit members, how they are governed, and the services they provide to members. Hannah Scott, OCDC Program Manager, shared, “I enjoyed hearing from co-op representatives about their specific businesses. Even though co-ops share similar characteristics, each one is unique. Listening to these leaders share the ways their businesses carry out the cooperative model highlighted the varied possibilities for co-ops. Understanding these possibilities will be extremely helpful as I work with new and emerging cooperatives throughout Ohio and West Virginia.” 
 
Finally, the program wrapped up with a hands-on, team project in which participants worked to create a business plan for a new cooperative. The activity provided a great opportunity to network with and learn from other co-op leaders in the program. “It was interesting to discuss with other class members how each of the cooperatives they were a part of were unique and how they were created to serve their members and work through problems that otherwise could not be solved on their own. Some class members even shared that working in the cooperative world compared to other business structures is much more rewarding and self-gratifying because they are a part of something so community-minded,” explained Chris Smalley, Business Development Specialist with OCDC, of the chance to learn from other Cooperative Leadership Forum participants.