4 Co-ops, 3 Funds Leading the Landscape
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
To move away from the ills of modern capitalism, we need conventional finance to see how it can evolve from capital supremacy to share power with other stakeholders. Cooperatives offer a firm structure with a history, a global movement, and a huge opportunity to embody solidarity, integral ecology and the common good. At their core, cooperatives are about democratic control, member participation, and a concern for community (see the 7 principles of Cooperative identity). As a result, capital can’t maximize it’s interests, while minimizing the interests and contributions of workers, communities, and ecosystems. Cooperatives offer us the opportunity to build reciprocal relationships between the environment, communities, entrepreneurs, and investors -- and together seek the common good.
Co-ops have achieved meaningful market penetration in a few areas: multi-family housing (25% are co-ops), credit unions (hold 10% of household savings), rural electric cooperatives (13% of customers), insurance mutuals (underwrite 25-30% of many types of insurance), agriculture supplies and marketing (17% are co-ops). The strength of these established cooperatives has developed some practical infrastructure in the US.
Co-ops + Investing.
Conventional investing in cooperatives has been limited since capital providers focused on upside returns, liquidity events, or exit opportunities aren’t likely to find those in many co-ops. That said, investors looking for stable returns have found good investments in agriculture co-ops (i.e. Organic Valley – raised $90M in recent round), producer and worker co-ops (i.e. Equal Exchange – 30 years at ~5% return), purchasing co-ops (i.e CCA Global – a multi-billion dollar independent retailer co-op), co-op loan funds (i.e. Cooperative Fund of New England, LEAF, Shared Capital), among others (spreadsheet of co-op funds and other leading ecosystem orgs here).
Multi-stakeholder and social justice oriented co-ops are beginning to offer more options for impact investors seeking bold change. For example, Namaste Solar (worker owned 100+ workers), Cabot Creamery (leading B-corp and co-op community leader), Amicus Solar (purchasing co-op for independent solar installers) are amongst the growing group of co-ops that also choose to be B-corps.
Globally, cooperative ecosystems thrive in many parts of the world from Italy to the Basque region of Spain, Quebec to Puebla, Mexico, South Korea to Rwanda. In the US, some co-op entrepreneurs are trying to learn from these regional co-op ecosystem models. New York City’s Center for Family Life & Green Worker Cooperatives have won meaningful local government support for worker-co-op development. Co-op Cincy drew inspiration from Mondragon to pioneer its union co-op model. Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives emerged with significant philanthropic support from Cleveland Foundation, Cleveland Clinic, and the Democracy Collaborative. The Industrial Commons in Morganton, NC draws inspiration from the US civil rights movement, the worker center movement, and received early support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The Industrial Commons includes producer co-op (Carolina Textile District with hundreds of workers), Opportunity Threads (a worker-owned co-op with 50+ workers), and 4 other co-ops and social enterprises as part of their ecosystem. They aspire to having thousands of workers in their ecosystem over the next few years.
Increasing recognition of unsustainable wealth inequality and the systemic tendencies for the poor to get poorer while the rich get hyper rich is driving a closer look at employee ownership as a wealth building opportunity for a broader base. The “Silver Tsunami” (retiring baby boomers and the trillions of businesses assets they’re exiting) is also driving a significant opportunity for conversion of existing businesses to employee ownership models.
ESOPs have been a well-developed tax-advantaged structure for 40+ years. ESOPs have demonstrated their wealth building potential for millions of families. It’s this track record that has brought folks like Phil Reeves & Todd Leverette from Apis & Heritage Capital Partners to see if they can use ESOPs as a tool to build wealth for Black and Brown communities in the US with their “Legacy Business Fund” that spun out of the Democracy at Work Institute. They’re raising a traditional Private Equity style fund — hoping to have a first close with $15 M in the next couple months.
4 pioneering cooperatives:
Resident Owned Communities (ROC USA) is a network that has converted 250 mobile home parks into resident-owned co-ops across 17 states. They have a network of 10 partners, a CDFI and are very much looking for capital partners to help continue to scale their work. They bring a relational organizing approach that helps residents (usually people of color) understand their options. Many times there is an abusive landlord that provides the catalyst for the organizing.
The Industrial Commons (TIC). An ecosystem of successful, multi-million dollar worker-owned cooperatives (i.e. Opportunity Threads) benefiting low-income workers, Guatemalan immigrants, and people of color, primarily in Western North Carolina. After 10 years of successful incubation and start-up, their enterprises (including a profitable Material Return co-op, a successful woman of color led book-keeping firm, and a large 30+ small producer co-op) are positioned for significant growth over the next 5 to 10 years. They’ve established an in-house loan fund that gives $50,000 loans to their ecosystem of enterprises, but are looking for investors to help them expand their factories and ecosystem of educational, financial, and training programs to incubate and convert more businesses to worker ownership in their network. Some of their products here: www.CreateTheCollection.com
The Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) brings congregations, schools, and community institutions together to build market intelligence and make better facilities management and real estate decisions. They’ve aggregated about $20 million in utilities and facility contracts in Washington DC and shifted 40% to BIPOC-owned businesses. They’ve also helped 40 members install solar, using a co-op process that allowed Black churches like Randall Memorial UMC to get a roof replacement financed into a cash flow positive solar project (3 min video). They’re raising capital to expand to new cities.
Driver’s Seat Co-op is an ambitious early stage co-op empowering gig drivers with analytics to make better decisions. The explosive growth of Uber, DoorDash, Amazon delivery has created the promise of flexibility and prosperity for millions of people, and yet the reality is that most gig workers struggle to make even a minimum wage. Ride hail and on-demand delivery promise affordable convenience for consumers, yet increase congestion and pollution while disrupting local small businesses. At the heart of this dynamic is the role of data in powering gig companies, managing gig workers, creating economic value, and shaping public policy. In short, gig companies have all the data, and with it are able to control all the outcomes. Driver’s Seat challenges that dynamic by empowering gig workers to collect, analyze, and profit from their own data, while sharing it in high impact ways with policymakers and other stakeholders. At a nuts and bolts level, Driver’s Seat Cooperative gives gig workers an app that they use to collect work data and receive machine learning-generated insights on how to optimize their earnings. Watch their recent pitch to the Worker’s Lab here to understand the way their multi-stakeholder co-op could grow and reshape the gig driver and transportation data power equation. They’re raising capital. Recent Investors include DRK, Ford Foundation, Workers Lab.
3 Leading Edge Cooperative Funds
Kachuwa Impact Fund | ~$25 million fund | Fund is similar to an Impact Real Estate like a REIT + a co-op Mutual Fund | Holdings include 20+ co-ops and social enterprises. Founded and led by Blake Jones, who also founded the Clean Energy Credit Union and Namaste Solar (an 100+ worker-owned solar company). https://www.kachuwaimpactfund.com/
Equitable Economies Fund. | Currently raising $2 million | 5-8% target returns | Fund Overview Slide Deck | Fund FAQ - Focused on growth-focused cooperatives with some meaningful racial equity or livable future impact. Led by Greg Brodsky, founder of Start.coop, The Bike Cooperative, and a thought leader in the area of multi-stakeholder cooperatives. Greg and his team have strong connections in the established co-op business sector. https://start.coop/invest/
Apis & Heritage Capital Partners Legacy Fund I | Two Black co-founders with Wall Street experience using mezzanine-debt strategies to help business owners sell to their workers. Their employee-led buy-out strategy seeks to facilitate a significantly scaled conversion of many more businesses where the benefiting workers are majority Black and people of color. Incubated in part by the Democracy at Work Institute. Significant potential for strong financial returns and hundreds, potentially thousands, of workers of color getting on a path for meaningful wealth-building. https://www.apisheritage.com/
Other Innovators and Pioneers to Have on your Radar:
Mosaic Capital Partners | Private Equity ESOP fund.
Main Street Phoenix Worker Cooperative | Raising Capital.
Kensington Corridor Trust | Raising $15 million for neighborhood trust in Philadelphia tackling homelessness, opioid crisis + community real estate redevelopment | Slide Deck here | Commitments from Ford foundation and other partners.
Crossing Capital Group / Nonprofit Finance Fund | Raising fund to help churches have patient pre-development capital to have agency in their re-development / repurposing processes | Contact: Rev. Dr. Sidney Williams
Obran Cooperative | Worker co-op holding company that grew from staffing co-op and construction company in Baltimore | Targeting a mezzanine debt fund to acquire small businesses. | Straight debt instrument so incentive of equity upside goes to worker owners | Partnership with Kaiser Permanente to help connect to opportunities | Contact: Joseph Cureton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Seed Commons | Pioneers in Non-extractive finance | Collaborative network of loan funds across the US | Fund has recently grown to ~$20 M
Racial Justice Investing - (Common Futures, Inclusive Capital Collective, Boston UJIMA project, Chordata Capital Zine, Resource Generation)
Community Investing (CNote, RSF, Capital Impact Partners, WeFunder, Investibule, Slow Money, Moneytransforms.com (3min video))
Steward Ownership & Integral Ecology. What is Steward Ownership? From Purpose Ventures. Case Study on Organically Grown Company (OGC) - Their story here (from grower co-op to ESOP to Perpetual Purpose Trust), the nitty-gritty upside dividend cashflow waterfall of their term sheet. | Catholic Energies is a group putting solar on Catholic buildings.
Our hope is that this overview offers exposure to a broadening landscape of cooperative and employee ownership investment opportunities that we see shaping the more humane and just economy we seek to embody. These opportunities are expressions of new economic action and leadership.