Today there are seven guiding principles that govern and guide cooperative endeavors. They were derived from the Rochdale Principles, outlined by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers - the group of weavers that bought oats in bulk to sell to their members at a discount. From there the principles have evolved to describe not only how a co-op should provide for its members, but how it can enrich the larger community.
The Seven Cooperative Principles:
- Membership is Voluntary and Open: Anyone who meets the criteria of the co-operative may join, which means co-ops can't discriminate based on race, gender, class, etc. Some co-ops limit membership to groups with a shared interest or location, like weavers in Rochdale, but many co-ops have since extended their membership to include anyone who wants to join. For example, WSECU at one time exclusively served folks who worked for the state of Washington, but now membership is open to anyone living or working in Washington who'd like to do their banking with us.
- The Board of Directors is Elected by Members: The Board of Directors decide how an organization is run, and in the case of co-ops they are "hired" or more specifically elected by all the members. So as a member, you can vote to decide who will make decisions in the co-operative's best interest.
- Pricing is Competitive and Capital is Returned to Members: Co-operatives, unlike other businesses, are not-for-profit. That means their primary goal is not to make money for shareholders, but to continue to offer low-priced goods to their members. For example, at a banking co-operative, this could mean lower rates for loans.
- The Co-op is Self-Reliant: In order for co-ops to stay invested in members first, they must be autonomous and sustainable - making decisions for and by the members. That's why profits are reinvested and the co-op is run with an eye toward long term sustainability, not quarterly profits. This means that co-operatives can better weather fluctuations in the economy without risking their members' investments.
- The Co-op Supports Education for its Members: It's in the best interest of the co-op to make sure that the members and elected officials in the organization have the information and training they need to effectively do their job and make decisions.
- Co-ops Cooperate: Unlike for-profit business, co-ops don't see each other as competitors. Co-operatives don't hoard information or intellectual resources to gain a competitive edge, they share freely with other co-ops for the benefit of all members. Financial co-operatives, for example, have a shared ATM network that allows members to use ATMs around the world without fees.
- Concern for Community: Finally, cooperatives have an obligation to support not just their members but the communities they live in. This support takes the form of having co-op employees volunteer their time and financially supporting organizations that benefit the community, like WSECU partners. It also mandates that co-ops make decisions with the greater good in mind, taking into consideration what is environmentally sustainable and socially just.
Who Benefits from a Co-op?
In a typical business, the primary beneficiaries are the businesses owners or shareholders. They generate profits sometimes at the expense of their paying customers. But cooperatives are designed to benefit their members, both as individuals and as a group, though better, more competitive services, and sustainable practices that keep co-ops stable and thriving. Co-ops also serve the larger community beyond their members by supporting the common good. WSECU gives 4% of its net income back to local non-profits and other community partners doing important work. In addition to financial contributions, WSECU looks for ways to deepen partnerships through employee volunteering, offering financial education classes and donating surplus technology equipment.
The Cooperative Spirit
Co-ops use these principles to help align their practices and policies to the common good. But you don't have to start an official co-op to participate in the cooperative spirit. Beyond joining a co-op as a member, you can take up the cooperative spirit in your everyday life by considering how you make decisions and priorities and choosing to invest your energy in the good of your community. Maybe it's inviting your neighbors to come garden with you or offering your help in their yard. Maybe it's making enough dinner to share or supporting a friend's local business.
How do you embody the cooperative spirit in your life?