Co-ops emphasize people over profits

Money tends to be at the heart of most businesses, no matter their size. And though The Metropreneur certainly doesn’t have a problem with that, it recognizes that enterprises where revenue isn’t the top priority are also important within the entrepreneurial community.

For instance, co-operatives, which are owned and managed by the people who use their services and/or the people who work for them, are providing worthwhile products, services and opportunities− despite being more concerned with operating in a democratic manner than increasing profits.

“Columbus doesn’t have a ton of businesses that are collectives, though we have many wonderful social co-ops, like Third Hand Bike Co-op and Columbus Music Co-op, and lots of artist collectives,” says Elisabeth Warner, outreach coordinator at Clintonville Community Market.

“But I think even having just a few business co-ops makes a positive difference in the local economy because we support regional small businesses, which keeps money in our own community instead of sending it away,” she adds.

Established in 1997, Clintonville Community Market is an offshoot of a buyers club that originally operated out of a church basement. Its mission is simple: to provide healthy food to its community and support as many sustainable producers possible.

Members receive a discount on their purchases at the co-op, access to board meetings, the ability to vote in board elections, volunteer opportunities, and the pleasure of being connected to their neighborhood, Warner says.

For individuals, membership fees are $20 per year for a 2 percent discount and $40 for a 5 percent discount. For households, membership fees are $35 per year for a 2 percent discount and $60 for a 5 percent discount.

Richard Wehrenberg started Monster House Press as a solo venture in Columbus during the fall of 2010, but relaunched it as a co-op in early 2011.

“It was established as a co-op because I have always had the sense that doing things together feels better than doing things alone,” says Wehrenberg.

However, the Monster House Mission has remained the same: publishing relevant and pertinent texts and making “beautiful little books,” he says.

All that is required of members is their voices.

“We share ideas and thoughts on editing books,” he says. “That’s it.”

Money for the press’s projects has largely come from member donations.

As Nicholas Gonzalez grew older, he found it increasingly difficult to maintain his art gallery alone, so last month he moved it to Hoge Memorial Church and converted it to NRG Art Gallery Co-Op.

Members are required to volunteer a few hours each month and, if possible, help with exhibitions. In return, they become one of the gallery’s resident artists.

As such they are able to schedule solo exhibitions at no charge, participate in the gallery’s monthly exhibition, and are mentioned in all the gallery’s press and promotional materials. They also aren’t required to pay hanging fees or any commission on sales of their work.

The cost of membership is $25 per month.

“I wanted the struggling and starving artist to have an inexpensive space,” Gonzalez says. “Many galleries have very high overhead and must pass this costs along to the artists in the form of high commissions and hanging fees.”

Business owners who are thinking of transitioning to a co-op should reach out to other co-ops and business schools for information and advice, as the average business consultant probably won’t be much help, Warner says.

They also might want to visit the Northwest Cooperative Development Center website, which Gonzalez found very useful.

“Being a democratically minded citizen, and keeping in mind the current state of the economy, I believe [a co-op] is an excellent way to continue a business that may be in danger of failing,” Gonzalez says.

With any co-op, the concept of sharing wealth and taking care of each other is part and parcel, Wehrenberg says.

“Those two things have become detached −economics and organizing− somehow, in time, but for me that is a false break,” he adds. “They belong together.”