CoopZone Tele-Learning Series II: 2008 Call II – Starting Co-ops within a Host Organisation

Starting a co-op within a host organisation


A Sponsoring Organization, or Parent Organization gets involved in developing co-ops: think about whether or not this is a good idea; when to get involved or step back.

One case: began 8 years ago, from a non-profit development disability organization.

The group was interested in converting its sheltered-workshop into a worker co-op, to circumvent changes in the Employment Standards Act in BC that minimum wage be paid in all circumstances, which would threaten the feasibility of the workshop.

I didn’t think that circumventing a law would be a good reason to start a co-op.  I thought it was bad optics to be seen as a way to not pay minimum wage, and I was also concerned with using the co-op structure as a shell, instead of an entity that embodies the values of ownership, and controls, participation, etc.  I didn’t think they were coming at this for malicious reasons, and they didn’t know much about co-ops – someone had just suggested this to them.  So we talked a bit more and there were three things that came up that remained important when I think of this work:

  1. This organization was really interested in helping their clients make somewhat of a transition from their identity of client i.e. passive recipient, so they were interested in some of the co-op values such as self-reliance.  They weren’t sure how far the control could go, but they were really interested in exploring that possibility.  They didn’t like the traditional sheltered-workshop experience that people had, which felt like it wasn’t meaningful work, which leads to the second point that came up.
  2. It was more like “make work”, and creating a context for meaningful employment that could match members’ abilities and resources” that was very appealing to them.
  3. They understood very quickly, once we’d started talking, that the non-profit couldn’t own the co-op, and only the members could own the co-op.  But they were insterested in ways to provide ongoing support; they weren’t expecting to just ‘release’ this sheltered-workshop as a business in the community and say good-bye to it.  We talked about a number of possibilities: having a management contract with them; or continuing to offer training; having a seat on the board with them; fundraising…

Over time, there have been many of these situations.  The Health Authority in B.C. had started a co-op with people with mental health history, or are living with it; they started a co-op with what they call ‘worker-pools’ in Penticton and maintained a relationship with that co-op.  There is a small non-profit group in Victoria called Park, that started a market garden co-op called Market Garden, and their members are people with mental health disabilities.  The Canadian Mental Health Association in Burnaby still has a program with consumer-run businesses and at least two of them have been co-operatives.

This whole movement has evolved with the Social Enterprise Movement.  The Immigrant Services Society here has started a group with Afghan women, a sewing and crafts coop; there is a women’s group called Akira that has a well-known social enterprise – they are a property management company but they also started a group called Enterprising Women, making art, which is looking to become a co-op; the coalition of Experiential Women and Communities, which is a coalition of sex-workers which just started an umbrella co-op with many purposes; and a future development co-op here that has started an artisan co-op in the prison system.

…Continued in attachment.

Telelearning Notes II call ii