A cooperative is born from a decision to take action. It then takes shapes when people, as a group working together, decide to create an enterprise to meet a common need. However, establishing and developing a collective venture is not a small task! To make it happen, those involved must be organized and determined to invest much of their time. And usually they are when the project is beginning. Yet, once the cooperative has been launched and appears to have reached a decent cruising speed, it is sometimes taken for granted and the initial dedication begins to lag. How can we reignite the passion of that commitment?
In her recent book Democracy’s Edge, Frances Moore Lappé focuses her attention on the deep motivations that drive people to become involved. She identifies several sources of motivation that she then divides into three categories. First, there is one’s desire to do something for a cause deemed important. One is committed to helping the community, through a sense of dedication and pure altruism where one does not expect anything in return, which results in a commendable action that comes from the heart. On the opposite end of the spectrum is involvement motivated by selfishness, for one’s own benefit. Such is the case of people who view commitment as a means of gaining prestige or access to important people, to information, trips and training or to any other form of advantage related to their involvement. This is obviously not as commendable and may quickly lead to a conflict of interest. Finally, there is commitment based on reciprocity. This is the type of involvement I am interested in since, I believe, it is most representative of our network’s values.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam eloquently defines the concept of reciprocity. He states that “reciprocity is, in fact, a series of acts, where each is altruistic in the short term (benefiting others and representing a cost to the altruist), but as a whole benefit everyone.” In other words, I can give today without asking for anything in return, because my current situation allows it, and I am confident that I will get something back when I need it. This interpretation of reciprocity is a perfect fit to the cooperative context, which, as a matter of fact, proffers a horizon in the long term. The initial commitment is given time to be returned as a benefit and oftentimes, indirectly, since cooperative relationships are multilateral. Reciprocity therefore allows for the implementation of a system in which each person gives and receives at an opportune time. In some ways, it’s a mechanism that provides a safety net for each and everyone.
There’s more… The kind of reciprocity enjoyed by members of the same cooperative is pretty much the same as that existing between cooperatives, but at different level. I am always proud to tell how, throughout the history of La Coop fédérée, it has lent considerable support to several affiliated cooperatives that, at one time or another, experienced financial difficulties. But it also reaped tremendous rewards when, during a rapid turn of events in the early nineties, La Coop fédérée was itself facing some serious problems and its affiliated cooperatives unanimously agreed to come to its aid by converting term share certificates into standard shares, without buyback.
Overall, cooperative commitment based on reciprocity carries the promise of return. And that’s what we need to explain to those who still express doubt about joining the cooperative movement. All in all, it’s about applying a personal conviction on a grander scale, a belief whose benefits we have all understood a long time ago. It’s called paying it forward! In cooperation, the number of possible “forwards” is exponential. Nobody loses. And as the saying goes: “Good things come to those who wait.”