Top Co-op Issues 2019

Paul Thompson

Top Co-op Issues

A word cloud of the responses to our 2019 Top Co-op Issues survey

Each year, the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives surveys co-operative leaders from across Canada on the top issues their organizations face. In this post, we discuss the top six responses from our 2019 survey.

For more information on the Top Co-op Issues 2019, and surveys from previous years, visit our website.

#1. Public Awareness

Respondents continue to say that public awareness is the sector’s biggest challenge. This issue encompasses knowing how co-operative models work in different sectors, understanding and highlighting contemporary uses of the model, lack of teaching about co-operatives in schools, and a need to work together to highlight the depth of the sector so that the public has a good awareness of co-operatives.  Based on our analysis of the responses, there appears to be an underlying assumption that (a) increased awareness will lead to great use of co-operatives over other business models; and (b) people will be motivated to use the co-operative model to start new businesses. Some of the verbatim comments in this category of concerns include:

  • “Awareness and understanding of the cooperative business model. This includes misguided perception, confusion with the Cooperative brand, and unfamiliarity with different types of cooperatives.”
  • “Sector identity – Cooperatives tend over time to become siloed, missing out on the opportunity to tell Canadians what cooperative enterprise is all about”
  • “While proud of our history, co-operatives need to showcase contemporary successes of the model at work and differential relations with members (and non-members).”
  • “Ignorance of the cooperative model leads the public to confuse co-operative difference, social responsibility and government accountability.”


#2. Governance

Respondents expressed concerns about general governance issues, but also ones specific to co-operatives. This issue encompasses ideas like recognizing the uniqueness of co-operative governance, the time that governance in co-operatives takes and the tension that may exist between elected officials and employees, and the governance overlaps and need for coordination between individual co-operatives, federal and provincial associations, federations, and international associations. For the first time since we began the survey, some respondents expressed concerns that increasing political cynicism means that engaging people in democratic organizations may be becoming more difficult.  Some of the verbatim comments in this category of concerns include:

  • “Competitors can copy everything cooperatives do except their governance. Cooperatives need to show how behaviours rooted in their governance are the basis of their value proposition and their strategy.”
  • “Nimbleness of the governance functions. It is often easier for management to move quick enough as they are immersed in the business all the time, whereas the governance individuals are performing their roles on an occasional basis. The challenge is to keep all on the same page and move as quickly as possible to stay competitive.”
  • “Wear of democracy – political cynicism.”


#3. The relevance of Co-operatives to Contemporary Needs

Over the last three years, survey respondents have told us that co-operatives face a major challenge in making sure people understand the relevance of the model given technological change and shifting demographics. People expect different things from their co-operatives than they used to. Respondents told us there is a sense that co-operatives have traditionally been slow to adapt to these changes because of their governance structures.  Some of the verbatim comments in this category of concerns include:

  • “Reinventing and re-purposing cooperatives, ensuring older cooperatives continue to innovate and service their members’ needs.”
  • “Ensuring cooperatives remain relevant in the various markets they operate in.”
  • “How can we effectively serve the rapidly changing needs of members?”


#4. General Business Economy/Globalization/Sharing Economy

Co-operatives feel the stresses of the larger economy, the larger social economy, and the impacts of globalization.  From this perspective, respondents told us they have difficulty finding and retaining qualified employees, face increasing competition from online shopping and international competitors, need to make investments in technology to stay current, and face general financial challenges.  Some of the verbatim comments in this category of concerns include:

  • “Attracting talented leadership and management to the sector.”
  • “The economic environment – including the local economy and competitive environment”
  • “Remaining relevant in an increasingly globalized economy.”
  • “How to manage the cooperative business models successfully in an increasingly volatile and challenging external marketplace.”


#5.  Differentiation/Co-operative Difference

While co-operatives have long expressed concern about the importance of differentiating themselves from other models, this year some of our respondents worried that the uniqueness of the co-op model might be getting lost amidst the growing interest in the broader social economy. Some of the verbatim comments in this category of concerns include:

  • “The appropriation of and distortion of cooperative values by the corporate sector. Promoting the co-operative difference remains a key priority.”
  • “Setting ourselves apart from other forms of business, specifically with respect to our co-operative purpose.”
  • “The social enterprise sector is overtaking the cooperative sector and if the cooperative business model isn’t placed front and centre of this emerging social economy, it will get lost as new business models evolve.”
  • “Find a place within the ‘social enterprise’ and ‘social purpose business’ plaudits – cooperatives should be front and centre, not second fiddle to these ‘new’ forms.”


#6. Maintaining the Co-operative Identity or Mission

In order to differentiate itself from other sectors of the economy, the co-operative sector must, of course, maintain the co-operative identity. Whether it is the local control associated with co-operatives, or making sure that co-operatives are doing more than talking about their identity and are living their values, our respondents told us that they want to stay true to their co-operative roots. Some of the verbatim comments in this category of concerns include:

  • “Balancing the need for scale economics and local control.”
  • “Protecting and promoting the co-operative identity and difference.”
  • “Less internal focus and more focus on presence and contributions to society to create a buzz.”
  • “Instead of focusing rhetoric on the co-operative difference, live, demonstrate, report on that difference in visible was – governance, treatment of employees, respect for the environment, relations with members and so on.”


Darcy Overland, Research Manager, Centre for the Study of Co-operatives