When a person calls herself an “eternal evangelist” for the co-op movement, you might worry for a moment that you’re in for a serious talk. But Dame Pauline Green, the president of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), is upbeat and accessible, a smart and stimulating conversationalist who demonstrates a compelling enthusiasm for cooperatives. Since her election as president in 2009, the ICA has increased its global profile and invigorated its international membership. She’s offered world leaders insight into the cooperative model with wit and verve. In brief, Dame Green is a co-op hero, and she’s cool, too.
Early in her career, before she entered the world of politics and cooperatives, Dame Green was a cop, and it was this work that formed her ideas about the importance of justice and equity at all levels of society. It’s something that continues to inform her point of view. During her time as a Labour and Cooperative Member of the European Parliament and leader of the Parliamentary Group of the Party of European Socialists, her career had long been focused on reform and equality. As CEO of Cooperatives UK, and in her current role at ICA, she’s been a force for co-op advocacy worldwide. In recognition for her leadership she was appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. She is grateful for the honor, but seems nonplussed by it. It’s the standing of cooperatives in the world, not her own, that she is most concerned about.
“What ICA is trying to do across the globe is to build more cooperatives. Not to build an empire, but to have more impact on communities in every town and city of the world,” Dame Green said. That’s the difference between cooperation versus investor-driven capitalism. Cooperatives are set up to give back to communities, to share resources and meet member needs—and when people understand that difference, they often find that co-ops are the better choice. The vision of theBlueprint for a Cooperative Decade is that by the year 2020 co-ops become:
- The acknowledged leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability
- The model preferred by people
- The fastest growing form of enterprise
Dame Green thinks that for these goal to be realized, cooperatives need to invest, not just to “spend” capital, but to create pathways in cooperatives that empower people, communities, and their own development. “Co-ops that invest in their people, building skills and expertise, and transfer knowledge co-op-to-co-op will make a huge, huge difference to the world moving forward,” she said.
She’s been impressed by how many cooperatives around the world have embraced the key themes of the Blueprint (sustainability, participation, identity, capital, legal framework) including within the U.S. food co-op sector. “It allows for growth in these areas at the grassroots level while we at the ICA can be lobbying for them at the global level at the B20, World Bank and United Nations,” said Dame Green.
Mark Goehring, board leadership development consultant, is one of those strong proponents of the Blueprint in the U.S. Goehring and others have connected the key themes to the CDS Consulting Co-op’s Cooperative Cafe events, for example, that brings cooperators from different regions together to discuss how they can bring their own ideas into action at their local co-ops. “Co-ops are a change agent and a way to deliver tangible community benefits,” he said.
Goehring cited how many food co-ops are feeling competitive pressure from chain stores and corporations in their market areas. Yet cooperatives help sustain local economies and distribute profits to owners in a particular community, while publicly traded corporations do not. “Their primary goal is to take money out of the community. Let’s invest our resources to build our own enterprises and wealth. To thrive in a competitive market we need to be more efficient. This will come out of investment,” Goehring said.
From his perspective, Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, Wisc. demonstrates how investing in internal development and systems, and striving to be excellent through their High Five goals has resulted in significant outcomes for its staff and community.
Both Goehring and Dame Green think that achieving competitive success is a matter of awareness. Dame Green thinks one of the challenges of her organization and her work, and that of virtually every cooperative, is that cooperation is not always well understood. Changing that dynamic has been a motivating force for taking ideas to action. That’s where the co-op value of transparency matters. “I think we have to build on new technologies to bring communities into the orbit of local co-ops,” she said. “By bringing more people into the cooperative movement, we’ll generate creative thinking, generate new forms of cooperatives and new models of business, and the co-op will be well-informed by citizens of its local community,” she added.
“If we move forward in a way that people can clearly see the benefit and show them a way for them to contribute to it, that’s what creates opportunities,” Goehring said. One way we do this is asking people to make a choice to shop at a co-op. “That’s investing in community,” he said. “If we offer a great store experience along with contributing to stronger neighborhoods, and people know it, we will be the preferred way of business.”
Dame Green had a few words of encouragement along this line of thinking for her fellow cooperators. It goes as follows:
- Grow the visibility of the co-op movement
- Walk the talk
- Be good quality businesses
- Keep ownership alive
As for walking the talk, Dame Green said the ICA has been working diligently on investing their own resources in those things as well by focusing on their own member participation. They’ve assembled working groups from cooperatives around the world to address the issues raised in the key themes, they’ve established new lines of communication to insure better “business intelligence,” and they are looking forward to another reinterpretation of the Co-op Principles, as she said, “to keep the model fresh and alive.” As Dame Green reflected on the ambitious plans inherent in the Blueprint and “masses to do,” she is energized by the way co-ops around the world have responded to the invitation to take part. “It is vital all co-ops take a role,” she concluded.