What’s a co-op council?

By James Wadsworth, USDA Rural Development Cooperative Services

As producer-owned co-ops magnify the clout of individuals through joint action, so do regional cooperative councils amplify the efforts of individual cooperatives in areas such as legislative affairs, director education, and other vital member services. Such councils are a testament to the tenet of the fundamental co-op principle of cooperation among co-ops. Over the years, state and regional councils have been instrumental in keeping cooperative members ready to meet challenges, for which there never seem to be a lack of.

The first state co-op council was established in 1919 in California. The very early councils focused on legislative issues. As cooperatives and other related associations emerged, programs of the councils expanded to also include co-op education, member and public relations, promotional efforts and collaborations with other organizations with similar missions. Co-op councils focus on most of the same activities as they did in early years. The scope of the activities varies by organization’s structure, program structure, program focus, and resources. While activities vary, today’s councils provide an impressive array of services for cooperatives throughout the U.S. and these efforts are constantly being adapted to help members in changing times.

Many councils have close working relationships with other institutions and organizations. These include universities, development centers, cooperative centers, consulting firms, law firms, and others. Some councils formally contract with these outside organizations for various administrative, website, education, and lobbying services. In some instances the relationship with another organization is primarily about coordinating activities such as studying a legal issue or performing some type of cooperative technical assistance, such as co-op development work or strategic planning.

Many state/regional councils are affiliated with a university either directly or indirectly, which allows them to tap into the experience and knowledge of professors and Extension personnel. They rely on these experts for operations planning, to enhance educational programs and to help identify and solve various cooperative-related issues.

Council leadership and funding

Councils are led by an executive director, either full- or part time, or volunteer position. Some councils have fulltime or part time staff. Councils have a board of directors comprised or representatives of their member organizations. Funding comes primarily from the cooperatives that belong to the council. Mergers and dissolutions have reduced the number of members. As a result, some co-op councils expand membership to include utility co-ops, food co-ops, housing co-ops, and health care/insurance. Even though these co-ops serve diverse memberships and provide diverse services, they share many overlapping goals and issues that can be more affectively and economically addressed with a larger membership that represents a cross-section of the cooperative community. Many have associate or affiliate members. Such members may be engineering, consulting, legal, and accounting firms, trade associations, implement dealers, IT firms, insurance, printing companies, brokers, cooperative development centers, software providers, media and trucking companies.

Education and legislative activities

Councils provide cooperative education programs, considered essential for improving the performance of cooperatives and expanding the benefits of the cooperative form of business. Councils host educational forums each year with the frequency and scope of these sessions dependent on resources and demand. These forums tend to involve the teaching expertise and knowledge of land-grant colleges. Councils provide co-op education through workshops, publications, websites, and webinars. Target audiences include cooperative directors, members, management teams, employees, youth, and the general public. Topics can include director duties and legal responsibilities, governance, finance and taxes, leadership training, cooperative basics, marketing, and customer relations.

Some councils deal with legislative and regulatory issues facing cooperatives. Some lobby on behalf of members. Others follow legislation and regulatory issues and report applicable and significant findings to their membership. A few councils have political action committees. Councils also take part in national legislative activity via communications and membership with the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA).

Other activities that councils perform for their members include technical assistance, issues analyses, strategic planning, running foundations (for scholarships, educational programs, and other member services) and affiliations with other organizations for coordinated activities and synergies. Many of the councils collaborate with cooperative development centers, university faculty, extension personnel, and cooperative centers as well as other co-op councils. Some councils coordinate educational and other activities with regional cooperatives or partner with regional cooperatives for annual meetings and other events. Cooperating in this way enhances programs and creates more benefits for members.

Continuing role

Co-op councils and their services continue to play and important role for their members. As with any member-based organization, the members benefit in an amount proportional to their use and support of the council and its resources. Cooperative councils operating today have significant strengths, including one or more of the following:

  • Well-established operations, resources and governance necessary to serve their members
  • Effective cooperative education programs
  • Robust legislative, regulatory and policy activities
  • Effective communications and member relations programs.

Councils are also facing obstacles such as increasing costs, financial limitations and greater difficulty recruiting members. Most have strengths that offset weaknesses and are forging ahead to deliver vital programs and services. Councils play a critically important role in helping their member cooperatives stay attuned to issues and policies that affect them. Their role in cooperative education is sorely needed. Cooperatives face significant pressures in today’s economic environment and co-op councils can help to alleviate those pressures through their activities, which are as important today as they were in years past.

Adapted from Wadsworth, James. 2010. State cooperative councils adapting to help members in turbulent times. Rural Cooperatives. USDA Rural Development Cooperative Services. January/February. 77(1) pp. 28-31.