Cooperative memberships have benefits, but require a commitment to responsibility

Joining or helping to form a cooperative is accompanied by certain responsibilities in order to ensure its effectiveness and gain from its benefits.

Cooperatives are formed to provide services or products to their members. This coming together of economic interests makes sense in our capitalistic system for many reasons. The price of admission, most generally, is to accumulate as a group the necessary monetary capital to accomplish shared goals not possible as individuals. This shared economic democracy requires, in addition to cash or equipment, the exercising of the rights and responsibilities of cooperative membership.

The primary right is to utilize the business services for which the co-op was formed. Cooperatives, like any businesses, assume certain expectations of the market to make projections on sales levels necessary to both provide adequate cash flow to avoid financial embarrassment and profits to reward members and pay for future growth.

Economic democracy, one member–one vote also requires that members remain informed and exercise their right to vote to elect members of the governing board. Some could argue that along with voting, the members should attend all annual meetings and be thoroughly up-to-date of the financial health of the business they own. Members should hold the board of directors accountable to provide this informational linkage.

Board members, in addition to linking with the membership, should also create policies that guide the daily operations, usually through a general manager. Policies should be monitored with a balancing act that provides the manager freedom to operate, but still make clear operational parameters. Many books have been written on good board and manager relationships.

Membership in a cooperative is a long-term commitment to both the business community of interest as well as the community it’s geographically placed. Cooperatives help to build community through sound business practices. Board members need to dream the future that both build the cooperative and the community, utilizing and protecting the shared assets to benefit all.

The Michigan State University Product Center provides cooperative development services to existing and potential rural-Michigan cooperatives.

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