Twenty years ago, the climate for new co-op development was very different from what it is now. E.G. Nadeau, who was the first CDSdirector, (under the auspices of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives that set the stage for the formation of CDS) said cooperators were often “scraping the barrel” to find funding and support for their initiatives. It was increasingly clear to cooperators at the time that they needed an organization that was focused exclusively on cooperative development.
The formation of CDS was the result of the collaborative work of many talented cooperators based in Wisconsin who saw a need to converge support for existing co-ops and assist new ones into one organization. CDS was set up as a nonprofit organization that would help cooperative initiatives with funding and technical assistance.
In the formative years, CDS worked hard to build a team of people with strong professional skills and create the organization’s identity. Part of that process was learning where there was overlap with other organizations, streamlining some services and expanding others. From the outset, CDS has sought to be a clearing house and launching point for connecting people and resources to facilitate starting cooperatives. Like a lot of startups, there were a few uneven years at the beginning while the organization gained clarity on what it could and could not do.
In the beginning, it focused on regional Midwest development, and later expanded to one of its core service areas—food co-ops—throughout the country. However, one thing has remained constant about the vision: to be an organization committed to co-op growth. Since its founding 20 years ago, CDS has helped hundreds of communities form all types of co-ops, revitalize local economies, and benefit from the value of self-help and local ownership and control.
According to Nadeau, “We wanted to contribute to a new domestic model for doing cooperative development.” This concept grew up out of organizers trying on a number of philosophical and economic approaches to solving problems in communities, and finding cooperation a good fit for more people. The War on Poverty in the 60s created community development corporations aimed at poor communities with a mission to improve economic activity to promote jobs, housing, and health. Some co-ops were created out of that activist milieu, but not many. Nadeau and other cooperators felt strongly that having an organization focused on advancing cooperation would raise awareness among developers, lenders, and politicians about the viability of cooperation in meeting a range of community goals.
“While the community development movement preceded us, some of us felt that we had a model that could be applied anywhere in the country.” That model being cooperation—something that would work in any community, be it well-off or poor, rural or urban. As part of realizing this vision over the years CDS has assisted 20 sister co-op development organizations around the country that raise the visibility of co-op projects and keep local leadership informed of co-op activity and the CooperationWorks partnership.
“Nobody expected CDS to become what it is,” said Ann Hoyt, professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives, who was CDS’ board chair in its formative years and part of the dialogue. “It’s been remarkable to see CDS’s level of expertise and development grow over time,” she said, but they did see the potential for the CDS structure to provide good development services for co-ops.
CDS as a whole has worked with and helped create myriad urban and rural co-ops across sectors, but one area of their work that has been really outstanding has been the work with food co-ops. “It’s been remarkable to see the level of expertise and development over time,” Hoyt said.
Expansion specialist Bill Gessner was the first food consultant to join CDS in 1992 because he wanted to work with an organization committed to co-op improvement. “I wanted to work under the umbrella of an organization, not be Bill Gessner Incorporated,” he said. “It’s more meaningful and more fun, and I’m better able to accomplish more things by working within CDS.”
Gessner also knew from the get-go he wanted to work on building a team of food co-op consultants. Since then, the food co-op consultants have formed programs and support systems that have shaped financial benchmarking for food co-ops, developed a systematic approach to expansion planning, sustained support for effective governance, and played a role in the organization of regional co-op grocers associations and the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA).
Stephen Wolfe, financial manager and consultant with CDS, said of the food co-op consultants, “They also understand the relationship between business and the cooperative principles, and how those work together. It’s what CDS is working to convey to co-ops as a whole.”
Gessner said he sees his role and his colleagues activities in CDS as being more than just focused on certain sectors. He embraces the goals of CDS to “combine the strength of co-ops. A lot more can be done,” he said.
What does the next twenty years hold in store? The future of CDSis much the same as its beginning. “We have a willingness to serve as an incubator for good ideas. We will remain innovative,” said Kevin Edberg, executive director of CDS. Edberg also pointed out that over time CDS has expanded its work into the whole development cycle, not just the startup phase. “We have a dual focus on starting new co-ops, but also an enhanced strand of helping existing co-ops remain vital.” He sees this as the key to building capacity in all sectors.
“We want to be a premier co-op development center where we have resources, in and out-of-house, to strengthen existing co-ops and help people set up new co-ops in all sectors,” said Edberg.Add to favorites