State Cooperative Councils Adapting to Help Members in Turbulent Times

By Wadsworth, James | Rural Cooperatives, January-February 2010 | Go to article overview
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State Cooperative Councils Adapting to Help Members in Turbulent Times


Wadsworth, James, Rural Cooperatives


Just as producer-owned co-ops greatly magnify the market clout of individuals through joint action, so do state and regional cooperative councils amplify the efforts of individual cooperatives in areas such as legislative affairs, director education and many other vital member services. These councils stand as a prime testament to the fundamental co-op tenet of cooperation among co-ops.

Through the years, state cooperative councils have been instrumental in keeping their cooperative members "tuned up" and ready to meet challenges, which there never seems to be a lack of.

The first state co-op council was established in 1919 in California, followed 2 years later by one in Oregon. The very early state councils focused mainly on legislative issues. As cooperatives and other cooperative-related associations increased in numbers, the programs of the councils expanded to also include co-op education, member and public relations, promotional efforts and collaborating with other organizations with similar missions. The nation's largest co-op council (Cooperative Network) was even instrumental in working to form Farmers Health Cooperative in Wisconsin. It now helps to administer this health insurance plan--a very ambitious undertaking for a co-op council.

State co-op councils today focus on most of the same activities as they did in their early years, although the scope of activity varies a great deal, depending on the organization's structure, program focus and resources. While activities may vary, today's councils provide an impressive array of services for cooperatives all across the United States. These efforts are constantly being adapted to help members in changing times. This article explores some of the different structural aspects of the councils and their activities.

Council structure has evolved

The number of state co-op councils expanded until the early 1990s, but has since declined slightly, due primarily to cross-state consolidations. There were 30 state co-op councils in 1948, 37 in 1968 and 38 in 1992; today there are 32. Table 1 identifies the councils and provides their website addresses (where applicable).

These four co-op councils cover more than one state:

* Cooperative Network, serving Wisconsin and Minnesota;

* Mid-America Cooperative Council, serving Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois (Illinois also continues to maintain its own "volunteer" council);

* Mid-Atlantic Alliance of Cooperatives, serving Maryland and Pennsylvania;

* The Northeast Cooperative Council, serving the New England states and New York.

All co-op councils are led by an executive director, either as a full-time, part-time or volunteer position. Ten of the 32 councils have a full-time executive director, 12 employ a part-time executive and the remaining 10 have a volunteer executive. Some of the councils also have other support staff, especially councils with greater resources. However, not all councils with full-time executives have additional staff, and a few councils with a part-time executive have additional staff. Staffing levels depend on the available resources, the specific programs the council provides and the number of cooperatives served.

Some councils have undergone significant changes in staffing during the past 10 years or so as they adjust to changing cooperative numbers and a challenging economic environment. Most of these changes involve staff reductions or a change in status of the executive position. In the case of the Mid-America Cooperative Council, "The council moved from a part-time executive and ad hoc board to a full-time executive in 2004; it added a part-time assistant in 2007 and now has an elected board of directors," says Rod Kelsay, the council's executive director.

Many of the councils have close working relationships with other institutions or organizations. These may include universities, development centers, cooperative centers, consulting firms, law firms, and others.

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