Overview: Cooperatives

Cooperatives are businesses governed on the principle of one member, one vote. There are several common types of co-ops (as well as hybrids—which combine more than one type), including cooperatives owned and operated by:

  • The people working there (worker cooperatives);
  • The people buying the co-op’s goods or services (consumer cooperatives);
  • The people collaborating to process and market their products (producer cooperatives); and
  • Groups uniting to enhance their purchasing power (purchasing cooperatives).Groups uniting to enhance their purchasing power (purchasing cooperatives).

Demonstrating this strategy’s vast scope and scale, there are 29,284 cooperatives across the U.S. operating within a range of diverse industries including banking (credit unions), agriculture, utilities, and child care.

History

The first known modern consumer cooperative was a retail store founded by 28 people in Rochdale, England in 1844. Originally selling butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal, and tallow candles, the business expanded rapidly as the co-op succeeded in elevating food standards — rejecting then-common tactics such as watering down milk.

Cooperatives play a critical role in building community wealth for several key reasons:

  • They often provide quality goods and services to areas that have been shunned by traditional businesses because they are deemed less profitable markets.
  • They typically invest in local communities. For example, many rural cooperative utilities finance community infrastructure projects, make equity investments in local businesses, make grants to neighborhood nonprofits, and sponsor a range of community-focused events.
  • Since most cooperative members are local residents, business profits remain and circulate within the community.
  • Cooperative membership builds social networks and strengthens social cohesion, which are essential elements of strong, healthy communities, by connecting diverse community residents.
  • Purchasing cooperatives, in particular, help small, local businesses remain competitive within markets dominated by large, national retailers.
  • Worker cooperatives, in particular, create quality, empowering jobs for community members (for more details, please see our page on worker cooperatives).


Looking for information about worker cooperatives? We have a special section dedicated to this emerging and exciting sector here.

Community-wealth.org houses an extensive collection of resources focused on cooperatives and their role in community wealth building. Below is a glimpse of the rich array of materials you will find as you explore our site:

Our Support Organizations section features major organizations working to support cooperatives across the U.S. One such group is the National Cooperative Business Association , a national membership organization that works to advance and protect the cooperative enterprise model through education, support, and advocacy.

Key Facts & Figures

(based on the latest industry surveys)

Number of U.S. cooperatives (excluding housing)

29,284

Number of worker-owned cooperatives

223

Number of producer cooperatives

1,494

Number of purchasing cooperatives

724

Number of consumer cooperatives

26,844

Number of cooperative memberships

350 million

Total revenues

$653 billion

Number of jobs

856,310

Families living in cooperative housing

Over 1.2 million

Our Best Practices section showcases exemplary cooperatives from across the country. For instance, one such organization is Weaver Street Market in Central North Carolina.   A cooperative enterprise including 3 grocery stores and a restaurant that together boasted sales of nearly $30 million in 2012, Weaver Street is owned and governed by its 185 employees and 18,000 consumers. Demonstrating its commitment to the community, the cooperative sells products from 160 local producers and makes grants to local nonprofits.

Our Research Resources section highlights web-based resources focused on cooperatives. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives website provides a wealth of resources, including links to current research, publications, and general information, on nearly all sectors of the cooperative movement.

Our Articles and Publications section includes links to a diverse selection of articles, reports, papers, and books focused on cooperatives. One such paper is Margaret Lund’s Cooperative Equity and Ownership: An Introduction (2013), which describes key components of the cooperative model and highlights practical applications of its use.

Our Toolbox features resources designed to help those working on the ground to establish and promote cooperatives. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Vital Steps: A Cooperative Feasibility Study Guide outlines how to conduct a cooperative feasibility study, the analytical tool used to evaluate a proposed co-op’s potential for success.

And, lastly, our Policy Guide provides an overview of federal initiatives and programs that can help practitioners leverage resources and increase their impact. For example, the USDA’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant Program funds technical assistance centers that support the development of cooperative businesses.