Co-op Education is About Cooperatives

Co-op education is one of the most crucial yet least understood elements of the cooperative food business and of co-ops in general. At times it seems as if education is merely tolerated because there is a "co-op principle" of continuing education, with all too many co-op boards, managers and co-op educators themselves not really knowing quite what to do with it.

And it is true that some types of cooperatives can get along quite well with minimal educational efforts, if all the external circumstances are favorable. If the co-op is isolated from competition or has a captive clientele or a natural monopoly or a single product line, then it can function with a relatively small amount of education. But when circumstances become difficult, the lack of education, and therefore the lack of member loyalty, involvement and creativity which are fostered by education, will soon be liabilities that can doom what was a "sure thing" in the co-op world.

Co-op education, to be worth the money a co-op invests in it, has to involve a much deeper effort to raise members' awareness of what is going on in the world and how the co-op alternative can effectively make a difference.

A food co-op is especially vulnerable to neglect of education because it does not enjoy the advantages of co-ops in less competitive situations. The food business is fiercely competitive, and that pressure is compounded by the fact that consumers encounter it every week. Marketing strategies, advertising gimmicks, and product lines change so rapidly that it is difficult for an independent operation to keep up with the game. These factors alone mean that co-op education has a very fundamental function in building basic "customer loyalty" -- which in a co-op means "member loyalty."

Not that there isn't plenty ofevidence that co-op education is closely linked to the success of a co-op. In case after case, when a co-op has gone under, observers have cited the decline of cooperative education as a major factor in the failure. Somehow, their obituaries tell us, the co-op idea got ignored, and new members were signed up without being taught much about the co-op, cooperative economics, or their responsibilities as members.

In fact, when the International Cooperative Alliance declared education to be basic co-op principle over fifty years ago and reaffirmed the principle in 1966, it based its statement on an analysis of the history of co-ops. The ones that failed generally were weak in the educational area. Those that succeeded over the long run had strong education components. The principle of education did not come out of thin air but was drawn from the practical experience of co-ops around the world.

Unfortunately, education's link to the practical side of co-ops is generally not well understood. Managers faced with problems of the bottom line are inevitably tempted to cut back on education, because it looks expendible. When money is tight and there are immediate pressing problems, the education budget is the first to be sacrificed.

And this sacrifice is often made with irresistible logic: obviously, the business cannot continue without the basic nuts and bolts of operation, whereas education can be put on hold for a time. Education is simply not as immediate and pressing a need.

Even when a co-op is doing relatively well, there is a temptation to skimp on education in order to create a better financial picture. If 1 percent earnings are achieved, why not push them toward 1.25 by cutting back on education?

This attitude, however, is perhaps the co-op equivalent of the often-criticized tendency of U.S. corporations to postpone capital investments, training programs, etc., in order to create impressive short term earning -- plundering the future of the company to make it appear strong in the present.

Education as investment

But if we begin to look at co-op education as a type of long term investment in the future, its value will become clearer. Unfortunately, even where there is plenty of funding for education, it is most often used only for short-term purposes: membership drives, investment campaigns, public relations efforts, etc. Such activities are absolutely essential, but they only incidentally involve co-op education, which is something quite different.

Co-op education, to be worth the money a co-op invests in it, has to involve a much deeper effort to raise members' awareness of what is going on in the world and how the co-op alternative can effectively make a difference.

However, this work does begin at a simple level, where co-op education functions merely as advertising, as a means of introducing people to the organization. Almost everyone in this society is deeply imbued with the values of an individualistic, for-profit culture. Therefore, many people are suspicious of the very idea of a co-op, and may even find it threatening, in the same way that they find socialist ideas threatening.

This problem of introduction is more acute in the grocery business than any other, because grocery advertising is one of the most intense forms of propaganda. The jingles and slogans of the major chains are relentlessly repeated every day and encountered weekly both outside and inside the supermarkets.

It should be obvious that a cooperative cannot hope to use traditional marketing strategies to compete for a market share against such power. Even if a co-op could afford massive advertising, it would barely create a ripple in public awareness of co-ops.

Another approach has to be used, namely person-to-person work through individual encounters, study groups and talks to organizations. As Robert Neptune, former general manager of Associated Cooperatives, noted in his history of California co-ops, most of the publicity for co-ops comes from word of mouth.

Lacking the propaganda mechanisms mentioned above, co-ops have to depend on this individual contact for recruiting members, and the most overlooked people for recruiting new members are the existing members. But for such recruitment to work, these existing members must be able to articulate what a co-op is, why it differs from other businesses, and what the larger social purpose of co-ops is. They also must be able to explain to others what some of the perceived problems and defects of the co~op are. These are things they learn largely through the efforts of the education staff.

Once the management of a co-op thoroughly grasps this distinction between kinds of introductory marketing, the effort has only begun. All too often, education personnel in co-ops are themselves not adquately trained in cooperative ideology and cooperative values. Many simply do not know enough about cooperative history and philosophy to make convincing introductory presentations about co-ops, let alone conduct a sophisticated discussion of cooperative theories or practical problems in co-ops.

This is not surprising, because many boards and managers themselves know little about cooperation as a set of ethical values and a philosophy of life. If those who hire the educators are themselves ill-informed, it is no surprise that they have trouble effectively judging or assessing the qualifications or performance of education personnel.

Some people in grocery co-ops believe that co-op education is nutrition education or consumer education or food policy education. And these are very valuable services and activities for a food co-op to be involved in, but they are not the heart of co-op education. They create interest in the co-op and loyalty to it, and they confirm the co-op's claim that it is responsive to members' needs and social concerns. But the core of co-op education is teaching about co-ops as alternative ways of carrying out social and economic activity in a community oriented manner. Also essential to co~op education is history, in the form of a broadening knowledge of what has happened and is happening in coops, what works and doesn't work. This in-depth knowledge provides direction for any co-op'sfuture plans.

Is ideology needed?

There are those who will object that values and ideology and philosophy really do not matter all that much in a co-op. If you run a good store, with reasonable prices, and the product selection the members want, and maybe a little consumer information, these conceptual things don't matter. As a general manager of the now-defunct Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley once told me, "People can't eat philosophy."

But neither can co-ops live by bread alone. For in the long run, there has to be a philosophy of society and economics that interests people in the co-op and gives mean meaning to their activity in it, whether that activity be merely loyal shopping or an active role in governance Again, this is especially true in the food sector, for the simple reason that the moment someone else comes along and runs a good store, with reasonable prices, product selection members want, and maybe a smattering of consumer information, the co-op will lose business unless it has something else going for it -- and that something else is precisely where co-op education begins. Co-op education begins in building a way of thinking about how people should work together and control their affairs democratically, how income should be more equitably distributed, and how cooperation can be deployed for an array of activities. It begins with people who have a firm conviction that consumer and worker cooperation represent fundamentally more humane ways to conduct economic and social life than the current system provides.

Cooperative values motivated the earliest pioneers of cooperatives in the nineteenth century, and cooperative values continue to be the mainspring of some of the most successful co-op experiences of modern times. It is no accident that three of the most spectacular successes in modern cooperation -- Antigonish, Mondragon, and the Japanese Cooperative Union -- had clergymen and their close associates involved in their founding. The co-ops themselves were not "religious", but the leadership saw the co-ops as embodying a set of humanistic values which coincided with religious teaching -- "brotherhood economics," as Toyohiko Kagawa, the Japanese co-op leader, called it -- and they infused those values into their cooperatives. These values and the co-op philosophy can inspire members to become involved and employees at every level to give more energy and commitment to their work.

What I am saying here goes against much current "wisdom": that ideology is dead, that all that matters is the bottom line and the condition of the economy. The supposition behind these statements is that the capitalist system has no ideology but is thoroughly pragmatic, profit-driven, and that it works because it structures the economy to take maximum advantage of humanity's basic acquisitiveness, harnessing our energies for the benefit of all. This attitude sets economic activity apart from moral activity, and insists that the economic life can exist apart from values or philosophy because competition, supply and demand will take care of human needs. The value aspect of human activity, they claim will be applied in the political sphere. But this protestation of lack of ideology is an ideology, it is the ideology of business schools and corporations throughout the world. It is an ideology that has created an economics without compassion, with democratic control, and without regard for the environment. The co-op philosophy insists that values cannot and should not be separated from economic activity. For the co-op to be vital over the long run, it has to be keenly aware of this difference and to teach this difference.

These are the sorts of topies that can be taught and discussed and above all applied in co-ops to make their education worth doing and to make it have a concrete effect in increasing membership, patronage, involvement, and all the other work that flows from a membership that has a faith in the cooperative way of doing things. We need co-op education if for no other reason than to counter the tremendously onesided education provided by this capitalist culture to justify itself.

Informed members

The other important function in co-op education is to keep the members thoroughly informed about the status of the business. A competent co-op educator should be able to talk as fluently as the general manager about the balance sheet, the wholesale costs, the wages and benefits package, the debt to equity ratio. Members must have a good knowledge of the fiscal status of the co-op, and it is up to the educators to transmit this knowledge. A well-informed membership is more willing to contribute skills, ideas and capital to the business than a membership that doesn't know what it's all about. The board and management should insist that the educators inform the members, and build their own accountabily into the process. The members are the best insurance against bad decision-making that a co-op can have.

A knowledge of co-op history and what is happening in other co-ops today is an especially important aspect of co-op education. Co-ops often "reinvent the wheel" -- and all too often it is a square wheel. A knowledge of the past and present experience of co~ops is essential in deciding the direction ofa co-op's development, providing this knowledge isn't seen as a normative set of commandments.

I have to allude to my own experiences in the Berkeley Co-op, having been editor of its weekly newspaper for six years and then a member of its Board of Directors. Many people conjectured on the reasons for the failure of what for a quarter of a century was the largest and strongest food co-op system in the country, and there were indeed many factors involved.

I am convinced, however, that the failure of boards and management to understand the importance of education was the single most significant factor in the co-op's demise. The co-op got into playing a numbers game, signing up thousands of new members while barely giving them a clue about what a co-op was or what their responsibilities as members were.

In 1978, led by a new general manager with no co-op experience, the co-op laid off its entire in-store education staff and reallocated funds for commercial advertising, which was an unmitigated disaster. Sales dropped, as did member involvement, with the percent of members voting in elections after 1978 dropping to half of its former total.

Even before this, however, the type of education taking place was often of questionable value, as there were no organized study groups, no systematic means of training employees and members in cooperation, and no standards set for the education staff's knowledge of co-op history and philosophy. Very few members of the education department were prepared to discuss cooperation at more than a rudimentary level. Many of the younger clerks, alienated and poorly-trained in co-op ideas, would actually discourage prospective members from joining the cooperative when inquiries were made at the checkstand.

Ironically, the educators, supposed to be the nerve center of the co-op, received less training for their specific tasks than the apprentice clerks did for theirs. This is because the co-op basically lost sight of the significance of education.

Problems snowballed. For example, without an effective education department to encourage member involvement, declining member participation enabled the board to make disastrous decisions in sparsely attended meetings, when an informed and excited membership would most certainly have blocked them. Increasingly isolated from the membership, boards worked more and more in a vacuum, without drawing on the moral, intellectual and, yes, capital resources of their constituents.

It's an old story -- the one we began with here. A weakness in co-op education doesn't necessarily reveal itself immediately, but it will appear in the long run.


In order to select the right kind of educators, the board and management of a co-op must themselves be educated in cooperation and co-op history before they are in a position to hire and train competent education personnel. It requires some study and discussion to obtain this background. Burdened with the details of running the business, many leaders might balk at the effort. However, I do believe that a couple hours of reading each week over a year or two, plus some discussions with other inquiring people, can give give co-op board and management a basic grasp of the many intriguing things to be learned about co-ops.

Aside from reviewing the brochures and newsletters the educators produce, one excellent but neglected way for board or management to judge the effectiveness of education personnel is simply to talk to the educators about co-ops. What do they know? Do they make it sound exciting? Do they bring in new ideas? Do they make suggestions, based on their own research, on how another co-op has innovated something or handled a problem? Are they able to teach you anything? That's the real test of education. If they don't stimulate you, it's pretty unlikely they're doing much for the members or potential members.

Ask your educator what you should study. Ask what publications they get from other co-ops. See if they can give you a basic reading list of ten books on cooperation. See if they present you both with some of the first hand observers of the original co-ops, such as George Holyoake's histories of the Rochdale Pioneers. See if they know about Joseph Knapp's monumental The Rise of American Cooperative Enterprise:1620-1920 and the following volume bringing that history up through the 1940s. See if they have recent work like W. P. Watkins' Cooperative Principles: Today and Tomorrow or material by Alexander Laidlaw. Do they mention J. P. Warbasse who, for better or worse (mostly for worse, in my opinion), was the main American co-op philosopher and founder of the National Cooperative Business Association? Do they have an inspiring recent title about a successful co-op movement in another country, such as W. T. Lundberg's Sweden's Cooperative Democracy or one of the several booklength studies of the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. Do they have material on the non-food segment of the American co-op movement, such as Marquis Childs's The Farmer Takes a Hand, the history of the rural electric co-ops, or some material on the credit union movement? Make sure they mention Art Danforth's uniquely uninspiring book, Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams -- basic reading for co-ops that want to avoid the mistakes of the past.

This is merely a potpourri for starters. If you get some good discussions going, you might be surprised by the amount of interest in your co-op and good will that gets stirred up as you go along.

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