The Cooperators Podcast Episode 23 Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke NASCO on Student Co-Ops

Put Brel Hutton-Okpalaeke in your contacts if you are a college student searching for affordable housing. That’s because he is the director of development services at NASCO,  North American Students of Cooperation, where the primary focus is on cooperative housing, especially for students.

Now is the perfect time for NASCO – colleges have been raising student housing and board fees at a brisk pace and, unbeknownst to most, schools run those functions as profit centers. They are not usually loss leaders.  What’s more, schools know that while all eyes are on tuition increases – jumps in prices for room and board frequently are under the radar.

Enter co-op housing where, frequently, students put in work requirements and an upshot is that savings over university housing and board charges can be substantial.

The downside? It takes a number of years to form a new student housing co-op. Schools increasingly are hostile to such co-ops (they want the revenues!). And many cities and towns are downright hostile towards housing options for significant numbers of unrelated adults.

Add in difficulties in securing financing to pay acquire new housing.

That’s why NASCO is crucial. It helps students navigate these difficult, churning waters.

And know there are real plusses to co-op housing for students.  The format teaches how to function in a democracy and, for many, co-op housing is an introduction to cooperatives in general. A few years in a co-op house can lead to credit union membership, membership in food co-op, and maybe even membership in a worker owned cooperative business.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 21 Nigel Forrest on Arizona’s Cooperatives

Go ahead, tell me you don’t think of Arizona when the conversation is about cooperatives.

You would be right.

The Grand Canyon State is not Wisconsin or Minnesota or Vermont.

But your podcaster – me – lives in Arizona and so I asked Nigel Forrest, a research associate at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, to update me and you about the state of cooperatives in Arizona.

Keep in mind that Arizona, in its comparative indifference to cooperatives, is akin to perhaps two thirds of the nation’s states.

And the good news is that Forest believes there is real upside potential for growth in cooperatives in Arizona.

He sees that as good, because cooperatives also bring more sustainability, more economic democracy.

Right now he pegs the number of cooperatives in Arizona at 50 to 60, mainly credit unions and the second biggest group is rural electric co-ops.

But he says there is vast potential for many new worker co-ops, especially as aging small business owners retire. They could close their business – or just maybe sell it to their employees.  It’s obvious which is better, for the employees, also the community.

Forrest also hopes for a new food co-op in Phoenix, the nation’s fifth biggest city and it has none right now. But he sees real possibilities.

He also has ideas about how to grow awareness of cooperatives.

And the ideas just may work in other states.

He also reports on new platform co-ops that are surfacing in Europe and that just may find use in the US, Arizona included.

Listen up.

This podcast includes a reference to the Community Purchasing Alliance – podcast here.

The food co-op expert whose name I blanked on is the Food Cooperative Initiative – podcast here

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 22 Cathie Mahon Inclusiv on CDFIs

Talk to Cathie Mahon, CEO of Inclusiv, and it’s a fast ride into what mission makes a credit union special, distinctive and in her mind the answer is clear: serving the underserved and usually that means economically disadvantaged.

She has tantalizing insights too. For instance: she tells why the business model of community development credit unions may in fact be primed for greater success than the model followed by most credit unions.

This is all about making credit unions work for their communities.  That’s cooperative principles in action.

There are about 1000 so-called community development financial institutions (CDFIs). They do good work. Tune in to find out more.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 20 Jake Schlachter We Own It

By Robert McGarvey

Corruption. Greed. Ignorance. Racism. Sexism.  Words you don’t usually hear spoken about cooperatives.  But brace yourself because in the next hour you will as The Cooperators Podcast talks with Jake Schlachter, founder and executive director of We Own It, a Madison Wisconsin based organization aimed at energizing the 130 million of us who belong to cooperatives in the US to seize control, to put our cooperatives in the directions we want them to go.

We have that power.

We just have to know it. And use it.

We are member owners. We Own It wants to remind us about that. And offer us tips on how best to use our powers.

The primary focus of We Own It right now are electric cooperatives and, yes, they have a glorious history. They brought light to the darkness of rural America.  It sounds like a Biblical moment.

But now, at many rural electric co-ops, it’s more akin to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  

Board members paid six figures for what many believe are volunteers jobs.

Boards with no African Americans serving populations with many African American members.

Boards with no women.

Boards that could spell solar if you spot them the consonants. And many of those boards also just don’t get that adding broadband Internet to their services just may save them for generations to come.

Some electric co-ops are grand indeed. Some aren’t.  We Own It aims to energize members to transform the latter.

We Own It also has its eyes on credit unions which talk a good game of member ownership – but many credit unions fail miserably when it comes to empowering their member owners. Have you ever voted in a credit union election? Ever?

The podcast also detours into food co-ops – and what they can teach electric co-ops and what they can learn from other co-ops.

BTW, Jim Blaine sits on the board of We Own It. He gets his own podcast here. Other, related podcasts include Stuart Reid (food co-ops) and C. E. Pugh (also food co-ops).  And Chris Mitchell discussed rural broadband and electric co-ops here.

To read my interview with scholar Robert Putnam on “Bowling Alone,” read my interview here.

This is fundamentally a very optimistic podcast. But at times it may seem we stepped into Apocalypse Now and all we can do is mumble the horror, the horror.

Buckle up.  

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Episode 19 Chris Mitchell on Rural Broadband and Co-Ops

If you live in the sticks and want broadband, Chris Mitchell is the man to know.

If you are a cooperator and want to hear a co-op success story, Chris Mitchell also is the man to know.

That’s because – as director of the Community Broadband Initiative – Mitchell knows the reality of what’s happening in bringing high speed Internet to rural America.  He also records a weekly podcast, Broadband Bits. It’s a good listen.

By his estimate maybe 85% of the lower 48 states land mass lacks high speed Internet.

By contrast, 90% of significantly populated areas have that access.

This is about a whole lot more than streaming porn and playing online games.  It many ways it’s about the life of rural America, much of which faces a depopulation crisis.

Good broadband just may cure that.

Nobody thinks broadband alone will keep folks on the farm. But a lack of broadband just may be enough to send them packing.

Where do co-ops fit in? As heroes in fact, roles played in much of the country by both electric co-ops and telephone co-ops (of which there are many hundreds by Mitchell’s count).

A few decades ago the telephone co-ops began to offer broadband. In the last decade the electric co-ops – generally much bigger companies with deeper pockets – have entered the picture.

Mitchell expects a stampede of co-ops entering the fight.

This all is reminiscent of the rural electrification project that brought light to the countryside in the FDR New Deal.

It worked then. Mitchell believes it will work again and is optimistic that rural America doon will enjoy quality broadband, very possibly better than what urban America gets.

“The solution is in view,” Mitchell said.  “There’s little that would stop co-ops from solving this problem.”

 Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 18 Christina Jennings Shared Capital

Need a loan? You want to know Christina Jennings, Executive Director of Shared Capital, a Twin Cities based loan fund that is itself a cooperative and makes loans only to member cooperatives and there are around 250 of them.

In the past 30 years Shared Capital has made around 850 loans totalling $50 million. This year it will make around a couple dozen loans, said Jennings, with an average loan amount a notch over $100,000.

Listen closely to this podcast to hear about the loan application process. Jennings is very explicit about what’s needed to succeed.

As for the mix of co-ops funded, Jennings said Shared Capital has seen a huge spike in the number of worker co-ops – now more than half the applicants. It’s also seen a decline in food co-ops, in part because that sector is fiercely competitive right now.

Jennings also discusses how to assess the viability of a start up worker co-op.

All in, said Jennings, this is a great time to be in the co-op world – they now are seen not as a fringe but as part of the economic solution.

But opening a new co-op remains a long and tough slog that may take a decade to bring to fruition. That’s why a key question has to be: why are you forming a co-op?

Want to become a Shared Capital member? Jennings tells the how to in this podcast. 

She also tells a great story about how Organic Valley, a Shared Capital member, is living the cooperative principles in its support for other co-ops.

Along the way in this podcast you’ll hear mentions of previous podcast guests such as Stuart Reid (food co-ops),  C. E. Pugh (also food co-ops), Paul Bradley (mobile home parks), and also Davil Gill of Marquette Brewing, a start-up that in fact Shared Capital has been working with.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 17 Cliff Rosenthal CDFIs

by Robert McGarvey

You want to know about community development financial institutions? Cliff Rosenthal is the man you want to talk to.  He literally wrote the book on CDFIs and also the longstanding credit union initiative to serve the unbanked: Democratizing Finance: Origins of the Community Development Financial Institutions Movement.

This podcast also posted to the CU2.0 Podcast series which I run.  That’s a professional credit union series but the Rosenthal podcast has wider appeal because – fundamentally – it’s about bringing financial services to the unbanked and underbanked and stimulating more economic activity in communities that may be ignored by mainstream banks and even many credit unions.

Credit unions of course are cooperatives. Not all credit union employees know that. But it is fact.

Have CDFIs lived up to their potential?

Have credit unions changed the shape of financial services in America?

Rosenthal has opinions and he shares them in this podcast.

Along the way he talks about his stint at the CFPB – and the ingrained credit union executive distrust of that institution. Which may not be entirely warranted.

Rosenthal pulls no punches. He said, “It dismays me that 100 years after the birth of credit unions we still have a significant problem of the underbanked and unbanked.” And, note, about 25% of households falls into the category.

 Rosenthal also said that in 1990 there were around 13,500 banks and thrifts and a like number of credit unions.  There now are about 5500 of each.  “The number of credit unions falls by 200 to 300 each year.  Ten years from now there will be 3000, 3500 credit unions.”

That math is flawless. And it has to scare you.

In this podcast, you’ll hear a discussion of the successes of a Mississippi CDFI credit union executive Bill Bynum.  He told his own story in this podcast.

You’ll also hear about Jim Blaine, the charismatic, longtime CEO of State Employees’ Credit Union in North Carolina, one of the country’s biggest.

And you’ll also hear Rosental insist that many credit unions that focus on serving the underserved do better financially than those that focus on fighting with banks for more affluent consumers.

If you enjoy this podcast, listen in to the podcast with Cathie Mahon, CEO of Inclusive, a trade group for institutions that focus on community development.

 Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 16 Felipe Witchger Community Purchasing Alliance

Bulk buying means lower costs. That’s a fact of life in the US and it also works to the detriment of smaller, community oriented institutions – think churches, charter schools, various non profits.

They are too small to win those discounts so they pay high prices for basic services and commodities.

The Community Purchasing Alliance was formed to solve exactly that inequity for non profits in the Washington DC area.

Right now about 75 non profits in the DC area are saving around $1 million annually on $17 million in purchases of electricity, trash hauling, security, copying, and other commodity services. That discount happens because they buy through CPA and its founder, Felipe Witchger, is the guest in this week’s podcast.

He tells how his organization formed – he tips his hat to Paul Hazen, a longtime Washington DC co-op heavyweight as suggesting it function as a co-op.

He also tells how CPA wins discounts for its members.

Felipe also observes that CPA now also operates in southern Connecticut and North Carolina. It also is scouting cities for an expansion later this year and as many as five may be targets. Listen up to find if your city is on the list – and if it isn’t, you’ll hear what Felipe is looking for in partners.

A couple housekeeping notes:

* He says CPA’s biggest member is Kipp DC. That’s a network of college prep schools with an annual budget over $100 million.

* There’s intermittent wind noise. Sorry about that. Some was deleted but some stubbornly persisted. The podcast can be heard and the content is valuable however, so persist.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 15 C. E. Pugh on Grocery Success

For many of us, our warmest, most intimate connection with a cooperative is our local grocer and at the National Co+Op Grocers the business of that co-operative is helping its 145 members, each a consumer facing co-op grocer, successfully compete against increasingly powerful national grocers.

The good news is that most co-op grocers are holding their own.

There had been tough times for co-op grocers, admitted this podcast’s interview, C. E. Pugh, CEO of the National Co+Op Grocers.  A big reason is that in the past decade the big national grocers, from WalMart on down, all discovered the consumer appeal of organic, of brown rice, of soy and almond milk, the kinds of products co-op grocers had long depended upon for successes.

And then they had a lot more competition.

But co-op grocers also have a trump card, said Pugh. They can and should double down on local goods, local farmers, the local community.  They are truly of the local community and to succeed, they need to accentuate that.

Many are doing just that.

Consider this podcast a guide to running a thriving food co-op.

Want to know still more about food co-ops?  Tune into The Cooperators Podcast Episode 9 with Stuart Reid of the Food Co-op Initiative. That discussion has a focus on starting new food co-ops, where the Pugh talk is more tilted towards succeeding at an operating co-op.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 14 Neal Gorenflo Shareable

Call this podcast a deep dive into platform cooperatives and more broadly the sharing economy. That’s what Neal Gorenflo, executive director of Shareable in San Francisco, spends his days noodling on. This is a wide ranging, largely unstructured conversation but there are headline moments strewn throughout, from Gorenflo’s Road to Damascus epiphany that prompted him to resign a corporate job and become a sharing guru through his bareful perspective on Uber – sizzling stuff – and musing about Emilia Romagna which he sees as something of a polar opposite of Silicon Valley because it’s a place where cooperatives really matter.

In many ways this is a challenge to what Gorenflo calls Silicon Valley orthodoxy where the true believers are convinced their way is the best way to build a business. Is it really? Gorenflo has real doubts.

Want some good news about cooperatives in the US? You’ll hear it here. We just may be on the cusp of a boom in cooperatives as more of us come to see that this is a flexible business format with lots of benefits for workers, communities, owners.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.