Telling the Cooperative Story

Officials say promoting the co-op model can help it grow, especially among millennials

This video is part of the Cooperatives for a Better World campaign, a global effort to build awareness of co-ops. (Photo By: Steven Johnson)

QUÉBEC CITY— When Howard Brodsky started getting puzzled looks from well-educated friends, he realized cooperatives have a big problem.

“A president of a university said to me, “I don’t understand exactly what you do.’ My doctor said to me, ‘I don’t understand exactly what you do,’” Brodsky told a global summit of co-op leaders.

“We do not have a mission problem,” Brodsky concluded. “We have an identity problem.”

That’s troubling to Brodsky, the head of CCA Global Partners, a purchasing co-op in four countries with more than $10 billion in sales from 14 member businesses, such as Carpet One Floor & Home, the Bike Cooperative and the Floor Trader.

“People are looking for what we have,” he said. “They just don’t know who we are.”

During his Oct. 11 address to the International Summit of Cooperatives at the Québec City Convention Centre, Brodsky cited surveys conducted in the United States and Europe that showed 78 percent of respondents had no idea what a cooperative represents.

Howard Brodsky addresses the International Summit of Cooperatives. (Photo By: Steven Johnson)

“When we told them what it was, 75 percent—three out of every four people—said it would change their mind of where they would go and buy services and of whom they would do business with,” he noted.

That’s the impetus for a new campaign launched by the International Cooperative Alliance in part through the urging of Brodsky, a member of the Cooperative Hall of Fame.

The Cooperatives for a Better World effort is gearing up in 14 countries, including the United States. Through a toolkit that includes videos and promotional materials, it gives co-ops more ways to tell their stories, building from their own employees and members to the general public.

“That’s the kind of initiative that if we are all able to work together … I think that we can do a lot to make sure that this planet becomes a cooperative planet,” said Monique F. Leroux, president of the International Cooperative Alliance.

The website also serves as a collection point for meaningful co-op success stories that can be shared through social media, Brodsky added. He said the site will emphasize stories and blogs instead of facts because people respond better to people and faces rather than dry numerical recitations.

“We need to start communicating in a way that people can relate to us,” he said.

That’s particularly important for millennials, Brodsky added. Research shows the millennial age group, those born between 1980 and 1995, will make up 75 percent of the workforce within 10 years, and is especially concerned about issues of equality.

“Their values are aligned with co-op values,” he said. “We have an economic model the world is looking for with social and economic equality.”

Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.