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Cooperative Issues Forum: Inspiring the Cooperative Movement

May 25, 2017

Washington, D.C. (May 4th, 2017) – Thought leaders of the cooperative movement in the United States gathered in Washington, D.C. earlier this month for the Cooperative Issues Forum and Cooperative Hall of Fame.

The events were co-hosted by the Cooperative Development FoundationCooperatives for a Better World, NCBA CLUSA and the Ralph K. Morris Foundation and were segmented into three events: the Cooperative Issues Forum, the Hall of Fame Panel Discussion with the 2017 inductees, and the Hall of Fame award ceremony dinner.

Missed the events? Watch them here!

Unexpected Opportunity Keynote

Issues Forum Panel

Hall of Fame Panel


The Cooperative Issues Forum

The Cooperative Issues Forum took a pointed look at the competitive edge that cooperatives have in marketing. The event featured voices of prominent cooperatives Ace Hardware, Cabot Creamery Co-operative, and CCA Global Partners. Also featured in the Forum was the global marketing communications firm Finn Partners.

Howard Brodsky, co-CEO of CCA Global Partners and chairman of Cooperatives for a Better World, opened the event. He focused on the unexpected opportunity in timing for co-ops to become more visible in society in the present economic landscape. As eight people today hold the same wealth as half of the world’s population (OXFAM 2017), cooperatives are positioned like no other business model to market themselves as better businesses, economic engines, and community builders – not because they are following the current trends in marketing, but because these statements are true of co-ops everywhere.

 

There are huge differences between conventional corporations and cooperatives. A recent article about outdoor and sporting goods co-op REI and the unfortunate passing of its co-founder Mary Anderson called into question whether a corporation can have a soul (The New York Times, The Soul of a Corporation, April 2017). Brodsky reflected on this article by stating, “REI has a soul because Mary Anderson built it with a mission. All co-ops have souls. We do what we do for a reason, because we believe in it, because we are mission driven.”

Facebook, Pepsi, and other conventional corporations want to present as mission driven businesses, but Brodsky pointed out, “co-ops don’t have to want to be mission driven; we are.”

An interesting twist in Brodsky’s presentation was his telling of the story of David and Goliath. David, a shepherd boy, seemed to overcome insurmountable odds to defeat Goliath. In reality, he had the upper hand the whole time, tactfully defeating his opponent by taking advantage of a defect in Goliath and using an unexpected skill he had in his slingshot. Brodsky related this story to cooperatives’ competitive edge over conventional corporations. He said, “We [co-ops] fight giants, but we have to do it smarter. We have to use the slingshots we have. What do we have for tools? We have millennials who love authentic and conscientious businesses. We have missions and social good and ownership; big corporations don’t have that. We can be nimble in ways big, conventional corporations can’t. We have a lot of things at our back, and it is not improbable that we win. We can win because we are what is called for today by society. People are looking for us, we need to tell them that we are cooperatives.”

“We can win because we are what is called for today by society.”

 


(From left to right: Gina Schaefer, owner of Logan Hardware & member-owner of Ace Hardware; Howard Brodsky, chairman & co-CEO of CCA Global Partners and chairman of CBW; Wendy Scherer, social media manager at Cabot Creamery Co-operative; Jessica Ross, managing partner at Finn Partners marketing firm.)

The Edge: Co-op Marketing Panel

Brodsky was joined on stage for the panel portion of the event by Gina Schaefer of Ace Hardware, Wendy Scherer of Cabot Creamery Co-operative, and Jessica Ross of Finn Partners to discuss successes and opportunities for cooperatives to market their identity as mission-driven and principled organizations.

 

The dialogue immediately focused on storytelling and how it has become an integral strategy, possible for any co-op marketing budget. Scherer shared insight into Cabot’s collaborative approach through strategic partnerships and social media sharing. Scherer stated, “We partner with other co-ops all the time. Putting together big packages of promotions and speaking to the world as a group is really helpful in spreading the co-op story. We are constantly sharing our partners’ content, so that we’re able to say that we are part of this, and the message gets broader and people start to understand. There’s such a huge opportunity because there are so many of us [co-ops].”

Scherer went on to summarize how leveraging multiple cooperative voices in telling one story amplifies the message and harnesses the breadth of the group to validate what is being said. The conversation evolved to highlight how conventional corporations tell their stories by curating or orchestrating content creation to tap into the emotional core of marketing to consumers, as well as their success in doing so. The difference in approach between conventional corporations and cooperatives is how the member-focused nature of cooperatives means co-ops do not need to orchestrate such marketing acts. Instead, co-ops already do so much to give back and engage their members and the communities of which they are a part that it is simply a matter of taking record of these caring stories and sharing them. Jessica Ross of Finn Partners weighed in to say, “Corporations set up processes and events for themselves to be caught in the act of doing good, when co-ops are doing these things everyday. Co-ops can’t be shy. From the education to the giving back, and the jobs, the meaningful jobs co-ops provide; these are stories that co-ops can’t neglect to tell. These stories are a differentiator.”

“Corporations set up processes and events for themselves to be caught in the act of doing good, when co-ops are doing these things everyday.”

 

Gina Schaefer of Logan Ace Hardware Stores called for co-ops to draw deeper contrasts with their conventional competition. She said, “We need to be less modest in telling our stories, and more vocal about what the alternatives are in purchasing and services we access as consumers everyday.”

Brodsky echoed Schaefer’s message and added a caution about the growing threat of conventional corporations. “I always think Amazon is the silent killer, because there is no building; they’re hidden,” said Brodsky, “You know you pass the Walmart and you say, ‘they’re taking away local business, local jobs’ but the reality is Amazon is taking away everyone’s business and slowly amassing themselves to take away a piece of everything. And we as cooperatives need to be more vocal participants in the conversations to point out we’re here and we’re different.”

As our society and economy evolve, mission-driven businesses operating on principle and for the benefit of the people and communities at their heart instead of exploitation for the financial gain of outside investors, are needed more and more. Co-ops are in prime position to push innovations that counter the evolution of conventional corporations that do not seek to benefit the people and communities who shop their products and services.

Ross put it plainly, “The power of cooperatives is that here are organizations and businesses who are actually intending to benefit the people who are buying the goods or using their services. That is actually very different than the approach of other companies. Look in any industry,  corporations are spending billions of dollars on marketing products that aren’t good for us, clothes that are made in less than good conditions, or fish caught by slave labor. These are not cooperatives, co-ops have this virtue of it being true that we are in the business of providing benefits to consumers. And it seems so obvious but not well recognized.”

“Co-ops have this virtue of it being true that we are in the business of providing benefits to consumers.”

 

Co-ops don’t need to re-brand or re-create their image; co-ops simply need to tell their stories with effect, draw contrast with the conventional businesses they compete with, and amplify their message by supporting each other with simple synergistic actions. Storytelling can build recognition in the general public of the benefits in the co-op model, and this can start internally with co-op employees and members. Employees, who may or may not be the direct beneficiaries of the business but who are no less important, are critical to moving the needle. The panel discussed the integral role employees have in their organizations and reflected on how they engage their employees in supporting their co-op and the whole cooperative movement. Schaefer explained,”We explain the rising tides model or the shared services model, and we promote ways for them to engage through their local grocery co-op or CSA, etc. But we bring in those elements to highlight the community benefit of all co-ops.”

The panel highlighted that an essential component to building a brand is having one on the inside. Engaging employees in storytelling enhances the messaging of cooperatives everywhere, leading to a greater overall impact in the minds of consumers. The good deeds that cooperatives perform on a daily basis not only affect employees through the positive impact their communities receive, but they also serve as an element of pride employees find in their work at co-ops. More crucial to cooperative messaging is how employees can be the first line of communication with individuals unfamiliar with the business model and its benefits to them. Brodsky concluded, “We tell the story right down to the employee, because they tell the story to the customer, and we know it’s important.”

Co-ops have stories to tell – stories of entrepreneurial success, surmounting great odds for the greater good, and building communities in places no conventional business would go. Communicating cooperatives’ position as better businesses is key to gaining consumer choice, employee preference, and sustaining the communities to which co-ops are so deeply tied. The panel made evident through their discussions that co-ops have an opportunity to challenge today’s consumer to pick the better businesses, to choose cooperative over conventional.

The Hall of Fame Panel

Rita Haynes, John Johnson, Richard Larochelle, and Carol & John Zippert were honored on the evening of May 4th, 2017 with inductions into the Cooperative Hall of Fame.


(From left to right: John & Carol Zippert, cooperative activists and directors of program operations for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; Richard Larochelle, retired senior vice president at the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation; Rita Haynes, CEO emeritus of Faith Community United Credit Union; John Johnson, retired president and CEO of CHS, Inc.; and Judy Ziewacz, president and CEO of the NCBA CLUSA)

The Cooperative Hall of Fame is a prestigious award given to honor individual contributions to the greater cooperative movement. Past honorees have included the likes of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers. The 2017 honorees shared their wisdom and experience in a dynamic discussion.

 

Rita Haynes was honored for her almost 60-year career serving the financial needs of disadvantaged Cleveland, Ohio communities. A pioneer in faith based credit unions, Haynes transformed not only her region in Cleveland, but the greater credit union and cooperative movement through her work. Read more about the work of Rita Haynes here.

John Johnson’s unwavering passion for cooperatives was celebrated in no small part due to his leadership in reshaping U.S. agriculture co-ops’ ability to succeed in the increasingly competitive 21st century economy. Johnson made a career of innovation, seeking new opportunities to connect farmers to the global marketplace through the cooperative business model. Continue learning about John Johnson’s career here.

A great leader in rural utilities, Richard Larochelle was honored for a 40-year career promoting the cooperative business model. Larochelle led legislative conquests at local, regional, and national levels that have led to a substantial and vibrant cooperative utility sector. From lobbying congress to create the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program to establishing the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative in Hawaii, Larochelle is a proven champion of rural communities. Find more of Larochelle’s achievements here.

Carol & John Zippert were honored for their incredible impact on housing, land ownership, credit union development, and cooperative education for youth and organizations in disadvantaged communities through their work at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Not only did the Zipperts dedicate their careers to cooperatives, but these two are lifetime cooperative activists. Promoting the cooperative business model as an engine for social and economic change for low income and minority groups, the Zipperts led hundreds of black farmers in a class action law suit against the USDA for discrimination in credit and conservation lawsuits. Read more about this co-op power couple here.