Making co-operatives first: how we started, what we do and lessons learned transcript

The Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives’ (CCSC) Monthly Brown Bag is an online gathering for co-operative sector professionals to learn from others in the field and exchange information in a casual setting.

On December 1, 2021, the second Monthly Brown Bag featured Co-operatives First, a nonprofit organization funded by Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) and the Co-operative Retailing System (CRS). Our speakers were Audra Krueger, Executive Director of Co-operatives First, and Sheldon Stener Q.C., General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, FCL, and Chair of the Board at Co-operatives First. Founded in 2015, Co-operatives First provides co-op start-up resources, such as feasibility studies, business plans, and incorporation support to rural and Indigenous co-op entrepreneurs across western Canada. Their goal is to help leaders in these communities build new businesses, grow local economies, and support community development. Audra and Sheldon shared the story of Co-operatives First, which began with a research project called the Co-operative Innovation Project (CIP) at the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives.

Below is the full transcript of their talk.

Sheldon Stener: 03:58 Thanks, Marc-André. Thanks, Jen. It’s a real privilege to be invited to share today at this second Brown Bag lunch.

I have been on the board of Co-ops First for three years now and it’s been my pleasure to be assigned this responsibility as part of my job. Vic Huard was on prior to that, and he and his ilk and, I believe, Glen Tully, Scott Banda…all kind of were instrumental and kicking this off a number of years ago.

So, I thought I would just start by just talking a little bit about how Co-ops First came out, what got us here today, and then Audra will take it into a little bit more of a discussion about what it’s up to, and some of the successes and challenges and changes that we have had.

Co-ops First came out of the research. Federated Co-operatives identified in 2012-2013 that there was a gap with…we sensed, we intuited that there was a gap, in terms of co-op knowledge. Basically, the question that was put to the Centre for the Study of Co-ops and the Co-op Innovation Project were two-fold: Is the co-op model feasible in rural, Indigenous communities in Western Canada still? Does it still matter? Is it still relevant? Can it still be something that’s used? And, if so, how does one inspire those communities? What is required to do that? So, FCL funded a two-year project of research that involved the Plunkett Foundation from the U.K., the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, among others. And they set out to do a very deep dive into what the climate was and one of the interesting stories that…or, pieces that I like to think about that gives me a little perspective…I think it came from Scott Banda, our CEO, was…back in the day, every town had a co-op, had a Wheat Pool, and had a credit union. So, there were three institutions in each small town across rural Saskatchewan, rural Manitoba, Alberta, B.C. that were able to foster an understanding of what a co-op was. And, those folks…you know, everybody was very connected to our community and, as population shifted to urban centers, a bit of that is lost – obviously – and as some of those have closed down in the rural communities, some of that connection is lost. So, we kind of thought, “Well, there’s…where our sense is maybe people don’t understand what it is,” and how can we help that? We believe in the model and we think there’s still room for it. And the research came back and said yes. It said yes, it still is to both questions. It’s still feasible in rural and indigenous communities and small communities in Saskatchewan.

And so, there’s still room for co-op development and activity at the local level, and how do you do it, and the model…they set out a model with Plunkett to talk about, inspire, explore, create, thrive and connect…kind of those principles to get it going out there, and to do that. So, we look at what’s needed in those towns, it’s a business capacity. You got to find the folks that are able to lead…identifying those leaders in the community. Social capacity: you have to have shared goals; it has to be more than a couple people. And, there has to be a well-defined need not being met in those communities. And then, knowledge is a co-op model. So, knowledge of the co-op model, we think, had skipped a couple of generations.

So, FCL then decided to fund and start a non-profit, which was Co-operatives First to basically provide the services and the connection and the expertise across Western Canada. It was very important for us, because we have a Western Canadian footprint, that we take a pan-Western Canadian approach. And, the best model to do that was to create our own non-profit about that to talk to those Indigenous and rural communities, and to help meet their needs. And so, like any start-up, there were fits and starts, but not very many. I mean…at Federated Co-op, we made an initial $5 million five-year commitment to Co-ops First and we’re at the end of that. And now, we have a $1 million a year commitment that rotates through. So, there’s, at any one time, there’s a couple of years of commitment to make sure that they can focus on what’s important. And as the representative from Federated and I am now the board chair, my role is to is to be that link between our sustainability committee and Board, and the co-op retailing system, and the work with Co-operatives First is doing.

And, one of the things that we identified earlier was that we didn’t want the non-profit to be focused on or worrying about financing and funding. And so I think, one of the things that I am proudest of, in terms of success we’ve seen in the first five years of the organization that they’ve had, is because they’ve been able to focus on the thing we want them to do and not be not be worrying about funding and finding revenue and funders. Under the leadership of Audra Krueger, she’s assembled a great team. They’ve had some amazing successes. And, every year, it’s just another a year of “Wow!”, when I get to present to our FCL board about some of the accomplishments and what they have achieved with a small but mighty group. So, with that, I will turn it over to Audra.

Audra Krueger: 09:46 Great, thanks Sheldon. And, also…you know, I am here, but as Sheldon said, there’s a team beside me and along me both in the office and at home. I also had the pleasure of seeing a number of people on the call who are past board members and are inspirations to us every day on this journey that we’ve been undertaking for the last few years. We have started in 2016 with a very ambitious goal and it was really a pleasure to have a clear mandate and mission that was laid out by the CIP project, or The Co-operative Innovation Project, as Sheldon said, it was a very ambitious two-year study that the Center undertook under the leadership of Murray Fulton and Dionne Pohler. And, it had a clear objective. It was looking for what is the state of affairs; there’s a number of discussions happening here, probably in a lot of co-op boards and among sort of the co-operative ecosystem, where are we with understanding what a co-op is? And where are they relevant? Do they make sense? And, what are the barriers?

So, we were created with a very clear mandate and I talk about it as two big buckets: one around the co-op education and Jen touched upon the fact that we do a lot of work around governance and that’s a pleasure. And then the other big bucket is we do work with groups on developing their co-op. And, I was listening to you talk about the Plunkett Foundation. They are an organization in the UK that had been doing it for many, many years and had developed a view and sort of a strategy. And, I think of where we’re at right now and we’re very different, obviously, because western Canada is unique and each group that we work with is unique.

So, when we think about how we work with the groups, what we do and, off the hop, is really listen to what they are trying to achieve and ask good questions. So, we try…as sort of our theory of support is, to first listen and ask good questions back to help the group find clarity of purpose. Because, generally, the groups know what they’re trying to solve, what problems they are trying to solve, or what opportunity exist. They know best. So, it’s our job to think about some of those barriers that were identified in the CIP research and try to remove them. So, we try to take out any kind of friction that may or may not be happening…you know, within the group or when the group bumps into the sort of formalization of their group. Because a lot of these groups have been existing and doing their thing cooperatively for quite some time and they feel that it’s the right time to incorporate and become legitimate in the eyes of the government, and so we help with that.

As Sheldon said, we are just gathering all the data to present on the last year. And, when we looked back, we’ve had you know hundreds or thousands of students go through our courses, along with the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives. And, we’ve had numerous, numerous groups come to us. We’ve had 146 co-operative projects since 2016, and we’ve had 57 co-operatives incorporated since 2016. And this year, we’re looking at about 15 new co-ops, and we’ll see how we do for the rest of the year, but that’s where we’re at.

And, we have got big plans to carry on – one of the things that the pandemic taught us and we’re already going that way, is the need to involve technology. Like Sheldon said, there were a pool, a co-op, and a credit union in every town, those things may or may not be there; they’re probably not there. Where are people? They are online, so we really double down on our online offerings in order to engage and meet people.

And so, in that, the one thing that I realized this last couple of years is that there is an absolute essential piece of this, which is thinking about the audience and who are you trying to speak to. And so, we put a lot of work with all of our content and we create a lot of content about who is this for. So everything that’s written; everything that’s put out, there is someone that we’re trying to speak to. And, I don’t know if we did that so much at the beginning because we’re just trying to talk about co-ops to whoever would listen. But we sat back and thought, “who needs to hear this message and to what end? Why are we doing this, and what for?” So, that’s been a real focus for the last two years, as we’ve had the pandemic in a way…a terrible thing, but a gift because it allowed us time to focus and really prioritize our messaging and think about what are we doing and who are we doing it for.

So, that’s where we’re at right now…is really trying to refine our messaging and speak in relevant modern language to audiences that haven’t been spoken to or haven’t been reached out to before, particularly Indigenous audiences. And anyone that’s been paying attention to what’s going on in the world realizes that this is not just a co-operative shortcoming, it’s a societal shortcoming, where we have not reached out to Indigenous communities and folks and so we’re really trying to do that as well. I think I covered the things, but well, I will hand it back to you, Jen.

Jen Budney: 15:09 Thank you. I want to actually just take a second to make a plug for a book and a book chapter…you mentioned Dionne Pohler, she is at the Edward School of Business now, but she’s also the CRS Chair in co-operative retailing for the Centre. She and a colleague from the University of Alberta have put together a book called ‘Building inclusive communities in rural Canada’. It’s coming out, I think, early in the New Year from the University of Alberta press, and it will be open access, I understand. And there’s a chapter in this book that has been co-authored by Dionne with the whole crew of us from the Centre and from Co-operatives First. The chapter is called ‘Co-operative development possibilities in rural settler and Indigenous communities: lessons from the Co-operative Innovation Project in Co-operatives First’. So, there’s a lot more information in there on the research project that led to the development of Co-operatives First, and some of the challenges and successes that Co-ops First has experienced in the first few years of operations. I want to thank you both for that.

My question is: when you got the results back from this initial study, were you surprised at how little knowledge there was on the co-operative model out there, and what did you make of it…and now that FCL is doing something through supporting Co-operatives First, do you have ideas for what else other co-operatives and credit unions might do to improve the general understanding of the co-operative model which, you say Sheldon, has skipped a couple of generations.

Sheldon Stener: 16:45 Yeah well, I think what was identified early on, was we’re on the right track; our spidey senses were accurate, that there was a knowledge missing. And so, the next step was to take the next step to create the mechanism to help it. And, we also recognize early on that it’s not an overnight thing; this is going to take a while, I mean, even with the extraordinary success of 57 new co-ops and reaching these people, it still takes a bit of time to do that. One of the interesting things that Audra’s group does is work with economic development people. I think one of the big gaps is amongst…I will speak for lawyers for sure, there’s not many that work in this area in legal stuff. So, if you show up, and even if you think you want to do a co-op with your group and you go to your law office/your law firm they’re probably going to steer you to a different mechanism because they’re not familiar with it.

So, Audra’s group has established the tools for incorporation and to help walk through those processes…and again, it speaks to meeting them where they are. So, it’s very direct, in terms of the direct help to identify the groups that we can work with and help along what do they need and meeting them where they are. And also then, the longer term benefit is more and more people are getting an understanding of what a co-op is and how it works, and being more plugged into that need. And frankly, if a group comes and a co-op is not right for them, that’s not where we steer them. But, I mean I don’t think there weren’t surprises. It’s disappointing, but I think that the big area for us is we focused on rural and Indigenous communities. I think that’s not the easiest. That’s the place where the need is still there and we’re still making the contacts. I mean, certainly as a board of Co-operatives First, we’ve talked about what’s next…like where do we, you know there’s pressure – not pressure – but there are some call to move into urban areas, you know into that and where do you do that, but we’ve been very careful to not to try and avoid mission creep and make sure that we’re being successful on what we are doing.

Jen Budney: 19:06 So, that, actually Audra, you at Co-operatives First, you established a course for federal public servants, didn’t you? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Audra Krueger: 19:15 Sure, yeah so we have a learning management system. So, it’s our own platform, which we’re very proud of, and we saw that there’s a need for us to have control and ownership over platform that we could be really responsive and nimble and get content out there to very specific audiences. So, we have undertaken this project with the Federal Government and it was part of their commitment in the year of the co-operative to that, and to honor that. So, it’s just recently been launched. And I think people are starting to go through it and such, but it’s very much in keeping with how we like to present things in a very pragmatic and straightforward way with really accessible content. And, we’ve had great feedback and a great experience with working with the Federal Government. And, picking up on what Sheldon said about the economic development set, we recognize, too, that we are fairly well resourced and very well equipped by FCL and the CRS, but Western Canada is enormous and getting out into rural areas is really challenging. So, we’ve spent a lot of time again thinking about the audiences. A strategy for us was to work with the people working on economic development projects and those kinds of things. So, there’s a whole ecosystem out there, and having varying levels of knowledge of the co-op model. So, there’s these heartwarming examples and stories of people working, that have taken our courses. Kyle does a creating connections course that is, again, tailored to a very specific audience, which is people working on economic development in rural communities.

So, them in their office – a group comes in, well they’d probably call and you know the person saying, “Hey, that sounds like a co-op to me.” So, what we’ve tried to do is get that knowledge out there to people making decisions and leadership as well. I am trying to connect in with Indigenous leadership to make sure that they know who we are and start to build that relationship. And so, there’s very specific strategies like that that’s taken place and really acknowledging the massive investment that Federated and other large co-ops have made in this. They are aware that this is a competitive advantage and that more people need to know that and understand that, and what better way than to have a very deep and personal experience, creating a co-op that’s going to solve a local issue and so…sort of a deep understanding of where and when a co-op work. We have got lots of stories like that and we’re working with…I think we’ve had 146 cooperatives projects since 2016, so the demand is there. When people realize what it is, they’re interested, and they want to partake. They want to have control over their destiny. They want to have local solutions. They want…they’re reflecting back at some these large systems and seeing the failings that are happening. COVID has made that very apparent and they’re responding; they’re having local responses to that and it’s just…it’s a really wonderful thing to see and it’s a pleasure lots of inspiring people we get to work with.

Jen Budney: 22:23 Thank you, Marc André, you had a question, I think…
Marc-André Pigeon: 22:26 Yeah, I want to pick up a bit on what Sheldon was talking about and talk about the legal community. And then, Audra talked about some of the policy community, but I am interested more writ largely about the policy community – and maybe Sheldon, you have a lot of direct experience in this space, what are you seeing there? I was just speaking of people in Quebec, these forest co-operatives, and they were actually incentivized strongly by the government, back in the 80s, and there’s dozens of them. So, the government in Quebec has played a big role in nurturing their co-operative sector…do you see any similar appetite here in Saskatchewan or in western Canada, generally? Where do you see policymakers at more generally around the co-operative sector?
Sheldon Stener: 23:09 I mean, what we’ve seen in the last decade or two is actually going the other way. I mean, I think Quebec, from what I have understood, has kind of its own infrastructure. I mean very strong support for Co-ops, they’re very deeply entrenched and it would be lovely to get back there and then get that support again from governments. But, I think what we’ve seen is governments going the other way and still a long way to go in terms of having to policymakers understand what we are. And, I mean we’re working towards that all the time, and I know Federated has a government relations and it’s a constant effort to try and have them understand what we are and why we’re different and why we matter. So, we’re not seeing the support from policymakers in terms of…certainly nothing like that.

In fact, it’s funny. I got a document last week – a number of retails of our members reached out to me last week because they got a questionnaire from the Alberta government that they’re opening up their act, the Co-op Act. They have already done their business corporations act. They have done their non-profit corporations Act; and now, they want to do their spin through the Co-op Act. And, it was all okay, except for one thing that said, “well, just like the other acts, we want to encourage investment from outside, so we want to open up to and change, so you don’t have to be a resident of Alberta to be board on the co-op.” And, I kind of sat back and there’s a…there’s a situation where it’s not all the same; it’s apples and oranges. You don’t need somebody overseas investing in your co-op in Tabor, Alberta or directing it. I mean, it’s just totally misunderstanding and misapprehending of what a co-op is about, and the local nature of us and local governance structure. So, there’s still room to go on that, in terms of where we’re at. I mean, again, I think it reflects what the CIP study showed is that we’ve kind of lost that.

Marc-André Pigeon: 25:06 Maybe a quick follow-up and a little bit more to Audra…when I was looking at the chapter Jen referenced earlier in the forthcoming book, it showed there had been 30 to 50 co-ops from a period of 2000 to 2015, so 15 years and you’ve kind of hit that mark in six years, right? And so, that’s pretty remarkable. What do you think going on there? Is that a demand and, notwithstanding the challenges that Sheldon just identified, what’s going on there? Is it all demand, or is it partly the supply is better? What do you see happening there?
Audra Krueger: 25:37 Well, there’s a couple of things happening there. I’m glad that we can come back to this because I want to talk about, again, this project and those barriers that were identified. And, I have personal experience in this too way back when, as part of a group that was trying to get a car share off the ground. And there was a group that had been working on it for years and had done a lot of work, you know…market analysis, etc., and it fell apart. They were on the cusp of doing the incorporation. They got the documents and hit a barrier. It really is a barrier for even the most highly equipped group. You would think it’s just…it seems like it’s too much for a lot of groups. So, I would say the short answer is…we exist now. And so, if we get to the right people with the right messaging with the right tools and we equip them or we have an incorporation product, so we do it for them. And so, that takes away a huge barrier.

And also the fact that we have the mechanism and the tools and the people here…if a person is thinking about, “Okay we’re going to come together; we’re going to create this business or services. We can be a non-profit. We can be some other kind of business model”. And they start talking to us and it makes sense for a co-operative and we’re going to help them, they’re going to go with a co-op, because we’re here to assist them and walk them through it and ask them really great questions and make sure that they’re focused on the membership, who are the members, and why are you doing this, and what is it.

So, we ask pretty simple questions and get them going on the right direction and try to equip them along the way. So, I would think the fact that Federated and the CRS looked at that data and saw it’s not great out there for co-op development. This isn’t a good thing. Look in 20 or 30 years down the road; we need a generational project, which is Co-operatives First, and try to reinvent that co-op DNA across Western Canada and reach out to new audiences. So, we’ve had conversations here about trying to get that message about how to collaborate because, with the pandemic and others and millennials and people…Indigenous people, they want to work together on positive solutions.

And so, getting in front of those people who don’t even know what co-op is or haven’t even thought about it – but there’s this general idea that they want to collaborate – we’re trying to get in front of them so really early entry into their heads. When looking back at some of our results from last year, we’ve had over 100,000 hits on our website, and it comes from us really focusing on trying to speak to as many people as possible.

But, we’ve identified the audiences and we’re trying to drop those messages in there. And, we’ve reached over a million through our social media platforms as well. And, this comes from a significant investment and trying to figure out what those audiences are. So, our message is getting out there and we are driving people to us.

Sheldon Stener: 28:48 If I can just link on to that, Marc André, about the government thing, it was funny; we met with the registrar of co-ops in Saskatchewan here and they’re stuck because they used to have resources that they could send people to who could help explain it and those are gone. And so, they were really excited to hear about Co-operatives First and they have somewhere where they can send them because they hate not helping, but it’s not their mandate to be able to give them advice. You know “here’s the form; here are the files,” but they couldn’t really advise them and so having another resource to send them to was really a great thing for them.
Marc-André Pigeon:29:20 That’s great. I’m going to turn it to Jen for one last quick question then we’re going to our breakout, so Jen do you have a quick question?
Jen Budney: 29:25 So, with all of this travel and work that you’ve done over the last five years, are there particular communities or sectors that you see are particularly ripe for co-operative development? And, if it’s not…if it’s more generalized, can you highlight a few give us some examples of the range of kinds of co-op that you have helped to incorporate.
Audra Krueger: 29:51 Yeah, so really interesting question and it’s one of those ones that I have been asked from time to time and have trouble answering, because the innovation out there is amazing to me…and so, it’s not necessarily a sector thing; it’s a sort of a group response to their problems. So, we’ve had a very diverse set of co-ops emerge and things that we wouldn’t have ever imagined. One of the more recent one and, those are going to be in my head, is we’ve had groups of midwives two different ones come to us because they want to find a way to work together that’s…you know, transparent and open and collective and fits with their values and the way they want to work together. And, we’ve had also really interesting one of newspaper publishers across the prairies, where the publisher is looking to, “What’s next? I am going to retire. I need to hand this thing off. It’s a really important piece of communication infrastructure in those communities and it shouldn’t go away.” Yet, he sees that he wants to step down step away from it, so he’s looking for a way to hand off.

We have also had cannabis retailers and producers come to us and they’re going to take on the big boys, like they’re taking on the big players and they see market concentration from big firms out in the East, and they want to create options for consumers and their members. And so, they want to gain market share with the kinds of products that they’re proud of. But, they also want to have a really viable business model, so things we didn’t think about. Then, there’s the classics like day care, which you know lots about and have done a podcast with us on, and those kind of traditional things – those service things. But really, it’s a testament to the people in Western Canada and their innovation, and their ability to adapt the model. It’s truly inspiring.

Jen Budney: 31:48 Excellent. Marc-André.
Marc-André Pigeon: 31:50 This was great Thank you so much.