Every co-op I know of gives donations to local and regional causes. It’s something we do as community-focused entities, and it’s one of the many things that distinguish the co-op business model. 

Many of these donations are in the form of scholarships to help young people attend college. Helping rural kids realize their full potential is a more-than-worthwhile philanthropy, and I encourage all co-ops to make it part of their charitable giving. 

But lately I’ve been asking myself, are we getting a suitable “return on investment” for these programs? 

When a co-op makes a donation, they’re using members’ money. There’s an obligation to ensure that the expenditure is in the members’ best interest. Could we therefore align our donations in a way that helps the student and also provides long-term support for our co-ops? 

Think back to your days in school. Did you ever learn about cooperatives in the classroom? Chances are the answer is no. With very few exceptions, the cooperative business model is simply not taught in grade school, middle school, high school, or even at the university level. 

The consequence is that our beloved and successful business model is often consigned to the periphery of our economy and our political discourse. 

So the real question is, what can we do about it? 

We know many co-ops have close connections to schools and universities in their communities. Are we leveraging those relationships in a way that could get co-ops included as part of the curriculum from grade school to grad school? 

There is no reliable national data on the amount of scholarships that all types of co-ops disburse to educational institutions each year, but after looking at available numbers, I’d offer a conservative estimate of about $40 million annually. That is a big number. 

I propose that at the state level, co-ops in every sector collect this scholarship data, bring it to the state university system, and request that it create a course on cooperatives at every school in the system. Investor-owned businesses have been doing this kind of thing successfully for decades. I think we’d get a positive response. 

Furthermore, I propose that the scholarships we offer be given to students in increments over four years and that recipients be required to take a college course about cooperatives, if it’s offered. The annual disbursement gives us time to build relationships with these students, and the course requirement offers them insights into our program that could bring these bright young people back to our co-op (or another co-op) when they graduate and begin looking for work. 

Our scholarships are a huge positive for co-ops, and they should be sustained and strengthened. But the last thing we want is for these programs to underwrite the “brain drain” rural America is experiencing. With a little bit of thought and effort, and some strategic changes to our giving, we can turn that around and help foster our next-generation workforce. 

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.