I have had a long, meaningful and warm, but oftentimes troublesome relationship with the word ‘co-operation’. Having been a professional working in the ‘Co-operative Sector’ (housing co-ops precisely) for many years, one of my major tasks was to educate new (and old) co-op members about the literal and applied meaning of the word ‘co-operation’.
We all ‘know’ that to co-operate with each other means to ‘work together’, ‘help each other’, and so on. In groups I have worked with it too often was meant that one would judge that another was not working or behaving co-operatively enough, ie that they weren’t pulling their weight, or meeting some or other expectation.
My job was assist co-operative members see that those types of behaviours were typical to most organisations, and ventures. In a capital C Co-operative, the word had quite a different meaning (while not precluding those others). It meant that our organisations were working as Co-operatives under the 7 International Principles of Co-operation, which was more to do with the actual purpose of the organisation, as in supplying (or fairly sharing) certain services of a co-operative basis, and even saving money or providing employment so that there was no shareholders or owners to whom profits are paid to, and have people employed by them, so that they can reap their reward from the labour of others.
But many co-operatives did and still do rely on members contributing equally with their work efforts, their buying power, or even the sharing of co-operatively owned equipment, which many farmers do. A Credit Union, in effect, is a Co-operative Bank, whereby instead of the profits from the members’ savings going to the shareholders, they are paid back to the members as dividends.
“Co-operation might be a tall task, but it is eminently achievable when we accept that there is no end to it”
Since 1848, Co-operatives throughout the world have been committed to their legendary set of International Co-operative Principles. But for the purposes of this paper, I believe it is their Values and their Ethics which are of so much concern for our organisations these days of wishing or needing to partner, collaborate, integrate with each other, or other means for uniting effort. So I include these Values and Ethical Values, in the proposal that more and more organisations will wish to embed them in there organisational experience.
- Promotion and facilitation of Self-help
- In co-operatives, people help each other whilst helping themselves by working together for mutual benefit.
- Self-responsibility, which is delineated and agreed upon to the clearest extent.
- Individuals within co-operatives act responsibly and play as full a part in the organization as is possible by any means, maximizing choice and inclination
- Democracy, whereby all actions, rules, procedures, policies, decisions and communication systems are agreed upon to the clearest extent.
- A Co-operative will be structured so that members have control over the organisation – one member, one vote, whether that be through a singular body, or through a structured system.
- Equality – Each member will have equal rights and benefits (according to their contribution).
- Equity – Members will be treated justly and fairly, recognizing that there should be no limit to the degree to which justice and fairness should be applied.
- Solidarity, where democratically decided means and methods are designed and agreed upon for ensuring the organization remains solvent, resilient, and never wavering from its values.
- Members will support each other and also other connected partners, collaborators, or shared networks
In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the Ethical Values of:
- Social Responsibility
- Caring for others
In attempting to pull this article together, I hope it has been made apparent that co-operation, as a phenomenon, is both conceptualised and functions at two levels – the personal and interpersonal level, and at the organisational structuring and management level.
Finally I would dearly like to call upon the wise words of a good friend of mine, Heather Millhouse, who says that all organisations depend for their lives upon a strong and sound Ethical Base, which she explains thus:
“An Ethical Base is the bedrock for relationships where people want to belong. An Ethical Base essentially builds trust which leads people to have the courage to either ‘let go’ or to ‘step up’; whichever is the critical need for consensus and harmony, or simply for personal growth. ”
This is often a very tall task, involving, like it or not, that component we all possess called an ‘ego’, which is mostly best managed by copious amounts of self- awareness, interpersonal awareness, self examination, and a willingness for those humble and ethical enough to seek expert help in acquiring these. Trust me, there are so many resourceful and trustworthy individuals out there who can help with improving these skills and qualities, as long as the individuals are carefully researched and chosen.
Co-operation might be a tall task, but it is eminently achievable when we accept that there is no end to it; that all humans and their organisations are forever in an ongoing process of building and creating co-operation – or sadly, destroying it.
Ross has lengthy experience in the Queensland community services sector. Early on, in Lifeline he led volunteer training in Toowoomba then served as Director in Cairns. His career then turned towards community housing / community development, in establishing community-managed housing projects throughout Queensland and a state-wide community-housing infrastructure. Later, with a Master’s in Social Welfare Administration & Planning and a Degree in Adult / Vocational Teaching, he has practiced and taught in community development, with a focus on the long term viability / sustainability of small locality-based not-for-profits. Presently he chairs the Board of Mangrove Housing Ltd and supports a voluntary outreach service to frail-aged men residing in aged care homes. He has served on the Board of Volunteering Queensland for 7 years and is now in a second stint as Board President of VQ. Ross can be reached at email@example.com
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