Published: March 27, 2023 By

Imagine a world in which the cooperative movement has won. The old dream of a cooperative commonwealth has arrived. You go about your day from cooperative to cooperative—shopping, working, scrolling on apps, and utilizing infrastructure all under the aegis of economic democracy. What a wonder! What a victory. The revolution is here.

And then, you realize, you’ve got some meetings to go to. A lot of meetings! Too many meetings. How can do you them all, and work your co-op shifts, and still have a life left to live?

I am going to argue here that a successful cooperative movement requires co-ops with a spectrum of involvement, from low to high. Involvement in governance is an economy, because nobody can be infinitely involved in everything. Like any economy, there should be different niches. Some co-ops can be designed for high member involvement, while others expect much lower involvement. This is already the case in practice, of course, though I don’t think we have a language to appreciate the value of the full spectrum.

People involved in co-ops, I have noticed, often love to categorize. They distinguish their type of co-op from yours, and pass laws that enable one type of co-op but not another. They mumble about which type is and is not a real co-op. They love to make directories based on their categories; I have made several myself. But the usual categories fail to notice the economy of involvement.

The most common set of categories has to do with who the members are: consumer co-ops, housing co-ops, marketing co-ops, worker co-ops, and multistakeholder co-ops. There are also more movement-based categories, like platform co-ops, solidarity co-ops, and union co-cops. The list goes on.

One way in which all the above types of co-ops vary among themselves is the expectation for member involvement. Studies of worker co-ops have often explored the “economics of participation” in theoretical frameworks and diagnostic tools, and this is because the space for involvement among employee-owners varies a lot. I have seen worker co-ops where the workers make every major decision through a strenuous consensus process, and others where designated managers decide virtually everything.

But this economy is not just limited to worker co-ops. Governments, for instance, talk about the “spectrum of public participation”; economies of time and attention lurk wherever shared governance does. I used to be part of a neighborhood credit union that held annual meetings as block parties; in the one I now belong to, the meeting is a poorly attended rubber-stamping affair. Usually the amount of involvement tracks inversely with scale, though not always; the Park Slope Food Co-op has a massive membership but also required work shifts and famously tumultuous meetings. Most low-involvement co-ops started much smaller, with high involvement from their early members.

One reason that we don’t talk about involvement levels is that co-ops at each end of the spectrum don’t like to admit to their counterparts’ existence. People devoted to a high-involvement co-op or two often view low-involvement co-ops as a sham, as too compromised by their bureaucracies and hierarchies to really be considered co-ops. At the same time, the heads of larger, more bureaucratic co-ops might see high-involvement models as admirable, at best, but lacking sufficient economic scale to be taken seriously. So each side of the spectrum goes on its way, ignoring the other.

In a cooperative commonwealth, however, I think we will need both. They will feed each other. I appreciate both in my own life. As someone with financial acumen composed mainly of vibes, I am grateful that I have basically no involvement in the running of my large, sophisticated credit union. My fellow members would have no business trusting me, and I am happy to put my trust in the well-qualified board members. But I love that I get to learn more about business through my small co-op investment club. I have only a passing interest in outdoor gear, so I don’t mind that my REI membership offers just a loyalty kickback. But as someone who studies social media for a living, I have loved being part of, a high-involvement, volunteer run social network.

I suspect others would flip all those priorities around, and we should all have that option.

Low-involvement co-ops can operate at large scales with professional management, who have time and expertise not available to the average member. They have a lower bar to entry for members, which makes joining the cooperative commonwealth easier. They may offer some member education, but there is little incentive to do very much. Member involvement may be limited to electing board members or voting on a proposed merger. But members can at least feel assured that the CEO’s job is to serve their interests—not to enrich outside shareholders. Because of their responsibility to members, managers will tend to operate conservatively, not wanting to risk member satisfaction on uncertainties. These are the co-ops we can trust with the parts of our lives where we have the least margin for error.

High-involvement co-ops, meanwhile, embrace the friction. Member participation is part of the goal, not just a means of achieving something else. There are ample opportunities for member education, since the co-op depends on members being knowledgeable about its functioning. These co-ops can be laboratories of radical possibilities, generating new social movements and demonstrating models that others fear to try. These co-ops are eager to learn from and support other co-ops wherever they can. They have access to energy and volunteerism that allows them to do great things with far less money than co-ops that rely on salaried employees. They are the beating heart of the movement.

On a spectrum, nothing is all the way on one side or the other, so everything is somewhere in the middle. Most co-ops blend low and high involvement in governance, striking a balance that works (or doesn’t work) for members and managers alike. Each situation has its equilibrium. Many co-ops are still searching for theirs.

When member involvement gets too low, a co-op becomes vulnerable—to management capture, for instance, or to demutualization, like what happened recently to Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op or to many once-mutual insurance companies. When members aren’t watching, a co-op can become a honeypot for profiteers. At the same time, too much member involvement can make governance unwieldy and prevent people from joining who lack ample leisure time.

I would like to see more hybrid examples. A large, low-involvement credit union could enable high-involvement lending circles or assemblies among its members. A high-involvement worker co-op can access economies of scale in its supply chain by joining a low-involvement purchasing co-op. Pockets of high involvement can keep low-involvement co-ops more honest, while areas of low-involvement can bring helpful efficiencies to high-involvement co-ops. A “ladder of engagement” can chart a path for members to move, over time, from low involvement to well-informed high involvement. When co-ops expect high involvement from members, feminist economics reminds us, it should be invested in and supported. Governance is work, and it cannot simply be left to those with lots of extra time in their lives.

The point of noticing the spectrum, and honoring different points on it, is to aid in the search for the right balance. Co-ops could be more intentional, for instance, about naming what levels of involvement they aim for, setting clear expectations among members and managers. They should articulate why they design involvement that way and not another way. At the same time, they should be willing to articulate the value of leadership alongside collective governance. The goal of member governance should be not to stifle strong leaders, but to ensure leaders are accountable in the right ways.

Members, also, have to find the right balance for themselves. They should be able to decide where they want to direct their limited time and energy—what gives them joy to do and what they would rather have done for them. The cooperative commonwealth would not be worth having if it leaves us with less leisure than capitalism.

Attention is a capacity that we need to use intentionally—both in our lives and our organizations. Allowing it to come in many forms is a kind of care.

Originally published at Ownership Matters. Thanks to Karen Miner and Sonja Novkovic for helpful feedback on an earlier draft.