Most people know grocery stores can be co-operatives. Some may have heard of daycare or housing co-ops. But the reality is the co-op model can be used to create a business in any sector of the economy. If the goal of the business is clear, and those involved have a desire to share decision making power, the kind of product or service the co-op provides doesn’t matter at all.
To prove this point, let’s take a look at some co-ops in unexpected sectors of the economy. (Even co-op pros might be surprised to hear that some of these co-operatives exist.)
Thanks to widespread adoption of online technology, we create unbelievable amounts of data every day. Increasingly, the co-operative model is being used to harness data to the benefit (and security) of those who create it. In his 2018 MacPherson Talk about platform co-operatives, author and professor Nathan Schneider spoke about the co-op model’s ability to capture and use data productively, to the benefit of its creators. He used examples from both the agricultural sector and the healthcare sector.
“We see a new generation of development in agriculture where co-operatives have traditionally been strong,” said Schneider, “where farmers start realizing ‘hey, something’s happening with all that data that our new tractors are putting out, who’s going to be in control of that?’…What would it look like to ensure that the next generation of farmer technologies are also under the control of the farmers themselves, where producers continue to be in charge of their access to market and the technology they need to do their business in a competitive market?”
A good example of this is the Grower Information Services Co-operative. This producer-owned organization focuses on agricultural technology and data storage and puts that data to work for its members.
In the healthcare field, the Midata co-op based in Switzerland gives users a place to host all their health-related data. Moreover, it allows them to share this information only with the people they choose. Likewise, Savvy Cooperative, owned by patients, was created to “bridge the gap between patients and practitioners.” The platform allows members to get paid for contributing their insights and information to the medical professionals who use them.
Another platform co-op Schneider mentioned was Resonate, a music streaming service (ie. a co-operative alternative to Spotify). Resonate is a multi-stakeholder co-op with three different share classes: musicians, listeners, and staff/volunteers.
Resonate’s mission is to ensure artists are paid fairly for their work. Since streaming music (rather than paying to own it) has become popular, independent musicians have seen a drop in the money they receive for the music the produce. Rather than having users pay a monthly subscription fee to access all of its music, Resonate’s “stream-to-own” model charges a small amount each time you listen to a song. After a user has listened to a song 9 times, they own it — and musicians get a bigger cut than they would selling their material through other means.
Teaching English as an Additional Language
When a group of English language teachers in Victoria, BC felt there were better, faster ways to teach English to newcomers, they decided to strike out on their own. In doing so, they created Real English Victoria or REV, a worker co-operative owned and operated by its teachers. And the formula has worked – this year REV was named one of the best English language schools in Canada.
What exactly is this formula? REV’s teacher-owners find fun and innovative ways to engage their students. Rather than staying in their desks, students learn through playing games, preparing meals together, and taking field trips to plays, hockey games, and restaurants. Combined with the co-op model, these teachers have been able to create something unique, shape their own vision of how best to teach English, and maintain stable employment for themselves along the way.
Some co-ops have members that are libraries. These co-ops deliver resources and services in a way that is cost-effective and efficient. For example, the BC Libraries Co-operative provides Information Technology (IT) infrastructure for its member libraries. The co-op builds and hosts websites, expands libraries’ access to fibre optic networks, provides licencing for ebooks, databases and apps, and provides online space for library workers to share resources.
Similarly, the Simcoe County Library Co-operative in Ontario offers access to online databases and special collections, wifi services, as well as a delivery van to its members. The Library Network in Michigan services 75 libraries in its region. These services include acquisitions, cataloging, circulation control, delivery services, and purchasing. All these co-ops help ensure public libraries can stay up-to-date in a more cost-effective way.
As a regular follower of this blog, you probably already know credit unions are co-operative financial institutions. There are also some really cool investment co-ops in places like BC and Alberta. But Salish Sea Cooperative Finance in Washington state is a bit different. This unique financial co-op offers an ethical investment opportunity for those who can afford it, provides students with a less onerous way to pay off student loans, and increases the financial literacy of the students who benefit from a low-interest loan.
In the US, student loan debt has reached crisis levels: more than 44 million borrowers collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loans, with some individuals owing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Salish Sea co-op uses money from its investor members to purchase individual student loans, and lower the interest required to pay them back. Some members also volunteer, mentor, donate, and co-sign loans for students, all in an effort to lessen the burden of debt for those who participate. This allows students not only to pay off their debt faster but also become more financially literate in the process.
Golf Ball Divers
Interesting fact: when you hit your golf ball into a water hazard, you might be contributing to a co-op. Yep, people make a living diving for and re-selling golf balls at courses across the continent. And it’s big business: the largest company in this industry sells over 50 million balls a year.
Golf ball divers have historically been independent contractors, but – like independent businesses in many other sectors – decided there were advantages to working together. So, they formed The Golf Ball Divers Alliance, a producer co-op, to market and distribute their wares. It seems there really is no limit to how this versatile business model can be leveraged.
Know an interesting or unexpected co-op? Tell us about it!