Five years ago, I founded We Own It to be a social movement-building organization inside the cooperative sector. (If you’re curious, you can see the talk I gave at the annual food co-op conference in 2014 that led to founding We Own It.) It took the crisis of my health care co-op (Group Healthcare Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin) planning to demutualize to get from a bunch of great ideas to a working affair. (We stopped the demutualization and the new GHC board fired the CEO.)
We Own It’s theory of change is that we can change America’s broken politics and our toxic capitalism to healthy democratic governance and a shared ownership economy — if the cooperative sector joins this movement. Co-ops have $3 trillion in assets, do $650 billion per year in revenue, employ 2 million people, and count 130 million Americans as member-owners of at least one co-op. Co-op member-owners live in every electoral district in the country, from Senator to dog-catcher. They’re already organized around movement values and principles. They are the new economy institutions already present in the old, ready to herald a new vision that Americans are hungry for.
But first, they have to believe that they are movement actors. There is a transformation of the values of leadership  of our legacy co-ops — the electric co-ops, the credit unions, even the food co-ops — from mirroring the same economic concerns of revenue, efficiency, and growth of their investor-owned competitors, to embracing the cooperative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. These lead to very different marketing strategies.
For example, to acquire new member-owners, a credit union could spend $50,000 on a radio ad. This is money flowing from the member-owners to a small number of people and concerns: an advertising agency, a commercial radio station and its owners. It may bring in new member-owners (efficiency, revenue, and growth), but how does it strengthen equity, or democracy? Or the other cooperative values of self-help, self-responsibility, equality, and solidarity?
Then again, the ad might not work — not all ads do — and that $50,000 was money poorly spent.
An alternative strategy is to employ democratic organizing to acquire new member-owners. Imagine $50,000 put into a campaign to organize the community to combat predatory lending. This is exactly what We Own It and Filene Research Institute were working on last fall and winter, before COVID-19 struck. Now we’re repurposing this work to bring credit unions into mutual aid organizing to help their communities get through the COVID Depression together.
With this work, we can directly measure how many members, and which ones, were acquired through our campaign. There’s no uncertainty around the effectiveness of the campaign’s efforts. We’re also using the skills and techniques of relational organizing — namely, leadership development — to invest in the growth of the credit union’s most valuable asset: its member-owners and their leadership capacity. Members recruited in this campaign will be the leaders of future campaigns. We are accomplishing the business objective — new member-owner acquisition — in a way that strengthens the cooperative values, not the shareholder values. And it’s even cheaper than advertising.
Our goal right now is to understand who wants to be part of this transformation of values together. My hope is that this workshop brings me into relationship with many like-minded leaders.