The cooperative: a tried-and-tested business partnership concept

The Netherlands has more than 4000 cooperatives. Some of them, like Rabobank, have a long history. Others are relatively new. Right now, a new wave of cooperatives is emerging. Ronald Korpershoek, Rabobank specialist in new cooperative businesses and citizen initiatives, explains.

The Netherlands has a long and extensive tradition of cooperatives. It began in the Middle Ages, a period in which the first formal cooperation arrangements were set up between people, in the form of trade guilds and district water boards. The second wave of cooperatives followed between 100 and 150 years ago. The markets were not functioning effectively and individuals found themselves in a weak position. Many people realised that they could only achieve things if they worked together: for instance, saving up money, taking out a business loan, arranging insurance or selling anything from milk to sugar beets. This laid the foundations for the major cooperatives that still play a role in the Dutch economy today. Cooperatives like Rabobank, Achmea, VGZ and FrieslandCampina.

A new wave of cooperatives

A few years ago, a new wave of cooperatives began to emerge. Rabobank is involved with dozens of local initiatives in which customers work together on a commercial basis, often to tackle societal concerns. We provide them with support in the form of knowledge, finance and in some cases a contribution from our cooperative dividend. It’s clear to us that people no longer want to sit back and wait for the government or a business to solve their problems. They want to cooperate with others and shape the solutions themselves. In what areas have cooperatives emerged? Fibre optic networks in remote areas, renewable energy and healthcare in villages and districts. Sometimes the cooperatives are a result of people getting together to take action, or sometimes an existing village association may start pursuing commercial activities through a cooperative.

Setting up a cooperative

People choose to set up cooperatives because they allow them to undertake commercial activities together, but governed by the democratic principles of an association. A cooperative in the process of formation goes through a number of phases. It starts with formulating a dream or goal that you really want to pursue. Support and resolve prove to be important factors in ensuring success. A cooperative also needs a carefully substantiated business case. It is important to circulate the initial drafts among stakeholders, who will often be the future members. In doing so you will be mobilising your future supporters. The next step is to organise the cooperative, after which it can begin to pursue its first commercial activities. In order for a cooperative to truly succeed, it is necessary to strike the right balance between commercial operations and the organisational aspects of the association. One of the main priorities in this connection is – and will always be – to develop member involvement.

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