Which Cooperative Principle is the Most Important?

Phil Kenkel

Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair

Oklahoma State University

Many cooperative leaders are interested in the attitudes of younger generations toward cooperatives.  I posted a question about cooperative principles on the discussion board of my class web site. The responses were insightful.  One set of responses discussed the importance of economic participation.  That principle encompasses both distributing profits in proportion to use and the member’s responsibility to provide capital.  The student discussion quite correctly pointed out that producers will not join a cooperative unless they perceived an economic benefit.  Economic benefits are also linked to efficiency.  Many of the comments stressed the importance of running the cooperative efficiently.

Other groups of students felt strongly that the more socially orientated principles of “concern for community” or “cooperation between cooperatives” were the most critical. These arguments are also compelling.  Members are drawn to cooperative because they are different from other businesses.  They like the fact that the cooperative is an integral part of the rural community.  They expect the cooperative to “do the right thing” and operate under high ethical standards.  Members want the cooperative to be in existence to serve the next generation of producers.  Students are perhaps at a stage in their life where they can put more emphasis on social issues.  Still, it is interesting to note that many felt that a cooperative that was not focused on their rural community or was not working with other cooperatives had little chance of economic success.

A final set of responses focused on the principle of “democratic control”.  These students argued that the most important aspect of a cooperative was that it was controlled by the member producers.  Member control in a cooperative is exercised through the formal voting procedures, and more frequently, through the member’s access to the board members and manager.  Members feel reassured that the direction of their cooperative is established by board members selected by and out of the membership.  Today’s young producers want to be involved and they want to make a difference.  The principle of democratic control certainly resonates.

Which cooperative principle is most important?  Fortunately we don’t need to make a choice. The cooperative principles appeal to the younger generation of producers.  Cooperatives just need to continue to be guided by them.