UWCC Launches National Cooperative Governance Survey

Thanks to a generous gift from the Cooperative Development Foundation and CoBank, the UW Center for Cooperatives (UWCC) is launching the first national, cross-sectoral study on cooperative governance practices. The Cooperative Governance Research Initiative will help cooperatives reflect on and improve their governance practices, in part by enhancing our ability to compare the governance practices of member- vs. investor-owned firms. Much of what is known about corporate governance comes from studies of conventional businesses, which differ significantly from cooperatives in terms of management incentives and governance practices. This initiative will address a critical knowledge gap for cooperative researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. 

The initiative will consist of a national, biennial survey of member-owned businesses such as cooperatives, mutuals, and credit unions. Longitudinal data will provide benchmarks to monitor and support efforts to improve cooperative governance over time. The survey will examine a range of cooperative governance topics including but not limited to board size and structure, board diversity, board compensation, committee structures, decision-making process, use of external advisors and/or directors, and the board-management relationship.  

An advisory committee made up of industry leaders from across the cooperative community will provide input on the project. The committee includes representatives from National Cooperative Business Association, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, Credit Union National Association, National Co+op Grocers, Democracy at Work Institute, Columinate, Neighboring Food Co-op Association, and FCC Services. The committee will be a critical partner in shaping research questions, increasing survey participation, and generating long-term support for the project.  

UWCC has hired Laura Hanson Schlachter to manage the project. Laura will complete her PhD in Sociology at UW-Madison in December and officially join the UWCC team on January 1, 2021. 

The events of recent months make this a timely conversation for the cooperative sector. Historically, cooperatives have demonstrated incredible resilience during economic downturns; and new cooperatives often emerge during crises to meet critical community needs. This is an opportune time to begin collecting data about how governance plays a role in these phenomena. 

If you are interested in learning more about this project, please contact Courtney Berner at cberner@wisc.edu.  

Staff: New Beginnings

This fall has brought several updates for UWCC staff including new opportunities, new free time, and new leadership roles:

UWCC's Faculty Director Brent Hueth accepted a Branch Chief position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Since 2006, Hueth has led UWCC's work on measuring the cooperative economy and was instrumental in the re-inclusion of cooperative identification into the US. Economic Census. We wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

Lynn Pitman, Senior Outreach Specialist at UWCC, retired in early December after fifteen years of service to Wisconsin cooperatives. Over the years, Lynn was the first point of contact for many cooperatives, providing assistance on a wide range of issues, developing resources that highlight cooperative solutions, and being a go-to person for questions about cooperative tax, finance, and legal matters. We wish Lynn the best of luck and happiness in retirement. 

Esther West, a Cooperative Development Specialist at UWCC, was recently elected to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives board of directors. West will represent worker cooperatives located in the Northern Region. Congrats, Esther!

Farmer Cooperatives Conference Addresses Leadership in Unprecedented Times

This year’s Farmer Cooperatives Conference welcomed over 170 cooperators from across the country to discuss urgent issues impacting farmer cooperatives. The event was held for the first time in a virtual format and highlighted issues such as new trends emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and leadership during times of crisis. Conference highlights included:
  • Leaders from Midwest and West Coast cooperatives shared lessons in navigating an unprecedented year with a global pandemic, economic downturn, and environmental catastrophe;
  • Leaders from CoBank, GROWMARK, and Aimpoint Research predicted emerging trends from the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Chuck Conner, President & CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, provided analysis on the presidential election and addressed key policy issues to watch for in the year ahead;
  • A panel of young directors shared how cooperatives can improve their attraction and retention of young directors and why board diversity matters;
  • Co-op academics presented their latest research in a lightning round session. Topics included implications of tax reform on agribusiness investment, patronage and equity management, and assessing the value of co-op membership.
In addition to webinars, participants were able to connect in group breakout discussions to share perspectives and insights, and deepen their learning. 

Thanks to the virtual nature of this year’s event, we were able to extend free conference registration to a larger pool of students than ever before. 26 students from eight universities representing a variety of areas of study attended thanks to the support of the Ralph K. Morris Foundation, the Renk Agribusiness Institute, and the William and Harold Moy Young Leaders Scholarship Fund

We hope to see the 24th Annual Farmer Cooperatives Conference return to the Twin Cities in 2021!

In Brief: Updates and Resources

UWCC Awarded Funds for Rural Development

UWCC will continue supporting cooperatives in rural areas thanks to funding from two grants:
  • UWCC has been awarded $200,000 to provide technical assistance to rural cooperatives through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG). The RCDG program exists to help rural cooperatives and small businesses expand, create jobs, and strengthen their capacity to serve rural citizens and communities. Types of assistance available include organizational development, cooperative education, board training, strategic planning, and support during feasibility and business planning activities. Key project areas include food and agriculture; healthcare and childcare; and the promotion of employee ownership. 
  • In partnership with the Cooperative Development Foundation and the ICA Group, UWCC will continue to support home care cooperatives in rural areas. Funds from the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant, awarded by USDA, will be used to create new tools and resources that facilitate the creation of new home care cooperatives and growth of existing home care cooperatives.

Cooperative Forestry Grants Available

The UW Center for Cooperatives is pleased to invite proposals to receive $5,000 - $25,000 to fund development of Wisconsin-based cooperatives or cooperative groups (e.g. associations, networks, informal collaborations) in the following areas: forest management, forest-related products, biomass energy, forest-owner policy initiatives, and support for existing forestry cooperatives or associations. Proposals are due February 12, 2021. See UWCC's website for announcement and application requirements.

Increasing Resiliency of Home Care in Wisconsin

Home care professionals provide compassion and help for seniors who need assistance with daily activities and are essential for citizens to age in place. Nationally, the sector is facing critical challenges. According to the Wisconsin Personal Services Association, between 2013 and 2019, 80 personal care agencies closed or stopped providing Medicaid personal care in the state. In 2019, Wisconsin established the Governor’s Task Force on Caregiving to address challenges ranging from retaining the home care workforce to ensuring workers can access state benefits.

UWCC is collaborating with the ICA Group to increase the resiliency of the home care sector. The cooperative model offers an innovative alternative to owners considering exiting their business. Employee ownership enables home care agencies to stay in operation to serve their communities and to promote local ownership by employees. UWCC and the ICA Group are providing the following services to Wisconsin-based home care agencies: exit planning, business valuation, market research, strategic planning, capital access, and financial management. To learn more or to share with home care agency owners you may know, please visit https://icagroup.org/homecarelegacy/.

New Report Outlines Policy Strategies to Support Cooperatives

Last fall, in partnership with the National Cooperative Business Association and the Cooperative Development Foundation, UWCC co-hosted cooperators and policymakers at a regional Cooperative Policy Roundtable. Touring ten cities nationally, the Cooperative Policy Roundtables brought together hundreds of cooperators to discuss the policies that promote and impede cooperative development. Based on these discussions, as well as research and key informant interviews, the Urban Institute has issued,  Policy Strategies to Build a More Inclusive Economy with Cooperatives. The report provides an overview of the role cooperatives can play in building healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities, and explains how to advance that work through federal, state, and local policy. To learn more, register for the Urban Institute's upcoming webinar on Tuesday, December 15th.

Upcoming Events

Co-op Directors Virtual Forum
December 9, 10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. CT
December 16, 10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. CT

During the month of December, the UW Center for Cooperatives and Cooperative Network will host two interactive webinars on the following topics: Ensuring Governance Continuity and Elements of Board Oversight. Directors from all sectors and types of cooperatives are encouraged to attend.

There is no cost to attend this event.
Webinar: Policy Strategies to Build a More Inclusive Economy with Cooperatives
December 15, 2:30 - 3:30 p.m. CT

Join the Urban Institute for a free webinar exploring how policymakers can help cooperatives build healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities. Speakers will discuss guiding goals and specific policy objectives to advance this work.

There is no cost to attend this event.