The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives was founded in 1962 as the International Cooperative Training Center (ICTC). It was inspired by the Humphrey Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which was designed “to encourage the development and use of cooperatives, credit unions, and savings and loan associations” worldwide. The newly formed U.S. Agency for International Development funded much of the ICTC’s early work.
Prior to 1962, the University of Wisconsin had a long history of teaching cooperation due to the rich history of cooperatives in the state. Our files show that the university starting offering courses in cooperatives and marketing starting in 1910. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is required by Wisconsin State Statutes to maintain a cooperative center (Wisconsin State Statute 36.11(40)), however, before the organization of the ICTC, cooperative academics and trainers were spread across campus without a formal, organizing structure. Wisconsin’s pioneering and innovative cooperative organizations and leadership in academic training and research also established the state as an international leader in cooperative development.
Cooperative seminars were the cornerstone of the ICTC; and in its first decade, the Center trained over 2,000 cooperative leaders from nearly 100 countries. Seminars ranged from two to 20-week intensive training programs on the cooperative model. Every course incorporated significant field experience to complement classroom instruction. The course work included cooperative philosophy; legislation; the importance of cooperatives to both agricultural and economic development; adult and extension education; cooperative organization and structure; public relations and communication strategies; and cooperative management, finance, and marketing.
The ICTC also provided tailored in-country training and assistance to cooperatives. Staff worked directly with cooperatives and cooperative federations on strengthening their systems and developing cooperative curriculum and leadership programs. These in-country cooperative development experiences were integrated into the cooperative seminar content.
The ICTC also started a specialized library covering all aspects of cooperation and related subjects. One of the first additions to the library was 5,000 books, pamphlets, and periodicals from the Rochdale Collection. ICTC had a professional librarian on staff who developed the collection and assisted students, visiting cooperators, and faculty with accessing the materials. These library resources were also available to students attending seminar programs.
As USAID’s funding priorities shifted and the needs of domestic cooperatives grew increasingly complex, the ICTC was rebranded as the University Center for Cooperatives (UCC). The UCC spent much of its second decade maintaining its connections to international cooperators while establishing research and education programs to serve domestic cooperatives. The Center continued offering a wide range of educational programming and building its library.
During the 1970s, the UCC developed educational programs for different audiences including cooperative leaders, teachers, young adults, and youth. The UCC, in partnership with the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives (now Cooperative Network), developed a series of workshops held across the state to prepare managers and directors to run cooperatives more efficiently. Workshop topics included grain marketing, time management, legal issues, board president leadership, cooperative publications and newsletters, equity redemption, and home delivery for dairy cooperatives.
A 1934 Wisconsin law requires that cooperation be taught in Wisconsin schools and requires that all teachers in social studies and agriculture take a course on cooperatives. In the 1970s, the Center wrote teaching and resource guides and distributed them to teachers across the state. The UCC also developed two correspondence courses on cooperatives for teachers.
The UCC hosted several youth programs across the state to help educate high school and university students about member ownership. The UCC also hosted young couples’ cooperative leadership conferences for cooperative members aged 18-35.
The UCC researched several facets of the cooperative model in the 1970s including the impact of Wisconsin cooperatives on community development. The Center also analyzed cooperative education offerings and the training needs of regional cooperatives in the Upper Midwest.
In 1970, a self-study of the Center noted the need to provide cooperative development services in rural and urban areas of the United States, particularly to marginalized populations. In the years that followed, the UCC started providing technical assistance to groups looking to start cooperatives. UCC staff worked with a variety of start-up projects including cooperatives related to machinery, honey, groceries, student housing, healthcare, theatre, and parking lots.
During this decade, the UCC continued to build its collection of cooperative materials. The Center hired a bibliographer to produce an annotated bibliography of books in English on cooperatives and received a $2,000 grant to cover the cost of acquiring additional books in English on cooperatives that were not already in the UCC collection. In 1978, the Library of Congress catalogued the collection to make it accessible to a wider audience.
The UCC continued to expand its domestic programming in the 1980s. The Center launched a workshop series for cooperative employees in partnership with the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives. The goal of the series was to help employees understand the unique challenges and opportunities of cooperative business through role play and training on cooperative basics. In 1985, Dr. Ann Hoyt, who had experience with food and childcare cooperatives, joined UCC as part of the Center’s strategy to increase engagement with consumer cooperatives.
Many of the education programs from previous years continued in the 1980s with a new emphasis on consumer cooperatives. Dr. Ann Hoyt worked closely with colleague Marilyn Scholl to develop the Cooperative Management Institute (CMI) for consumer cooperatives. CMI applied tools and techniques for effective management in the context of a cooperative business environment. Hoyt and Scholl also organized the Consumer Cooperative Management Association annual conference.
In the 1980s, UCC published a series of papers to share the results of cooperative research and to provide thought leadership on the cooperative model. These papers touched a variety of issues impacting cooperatives including the philosophy of cooperation, equity redemption, manager performance evaluation, cooperative ownership compared to other business forms, and capital acquisition.
The digitization of the cooperative collection started in earnest in the 1980s with a grant from the Cooperative Foundation. The UCC developed strong ties with the School of Library Science, the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library, and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In 1988, the National Cooperative Business Foundation donated the unpublished papers of Dr. James Peter Warbasse and Jerry Voorhis to the library. Both Warbasse and Voorhis were integral to the development of the Cooperative League of the USA, the predecessor to the National Cooperative Business Association.
UWCC launched several new programs and resources in the 1990s.
In 1993, UWCC published the first directory of Wisconsin cooperatives, a 52-page booklet that included the names and addresses of over 500 cooperatives in the state. UWCC has maintained the directory in one form or another for nearly 30 years. Today, the directory is an interactive online tool that allows visitors to sort Wisconsin’s more than 700 cooperatives by sector, type, city, county, or zip code.
UWCC was a leader in crafting the Madison Principles, a set of cooperative development standards developed in Madison in 1995. UWCC has remained an active participant in the design and delivery of a national training program for co-op developers.
Anne Reynolds, who later became the UWCC’s executive director, was hired in 1996 to transfer the center’s internationally renowned cooperative library online. UWCC’s adoption of the internet in the early years of the World Wide Web led to its resources being made widely available electronically. UWCC’s robust website continues to be a primary outreach tool for the dissemination of cooperative resources and research.
In response to demand for programming on farmer owned cooperatives in the Upper Midwest, Anne Reynolds and UWCC’s former director Dr. Bob Cropp launched the Farmer Cooperatives Conference in 1998. The conference provides a unique opportunity for members of the agricultural cooperative community to network and learn from one another. UWCC will host the 25th Annual Farmer Cooperatives Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November 2022.
Following the turn of the century, UWCC embarked on several ambitious, national research projects.
In 2002, in partnership with Wisconsin Public Television and the Wisconsin Historical Society, UWCC produced “Camp Co-op”, a television documentary about the history of cooperatives in Wisconsin. The program marked the 50th anniversary of Kamp Kenwood, a summer camp sponsored by the Wisconsin Farmers Union that teaches kids how to run co-ops. The documentary provided a glimpse into the live of people who built the state’s cooperative foundation.
In 2004, UWCC published Cooperatives, Principles and Practices in the 21st Century. The book serves as a reference manual for cooperative members and leaders as well as students of cooperatives throughout the world. Additionally, UWCC’s first edition of its cornerstone publication, Cooperatives in Wisconsin: The Power of Cooperative Action was created.
Very early in the decade, UWCC prioritized moving cooperative resources to the internet and became a clearinghouse for cooperative information. UWCC also launched a website for students and young members called “Co-ops…and You!” that explained the basics of cooperatives.
In 2007, UWCC launched Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives with funding from USDA. The project led to the completion of the first census of cooperatives in the U.S. and one of the center’s best-known products, a map of U.S. cooperatives.
In 2010, the center launched the Cooperative Business Study. The study involved interviewing senior managers and board members from nearly 300 cooperatives to better understand the governance structures, practices and impacts of managing member owned businesses.
In the 2000s, UWCC staff helped groups organize and incorporate cooperatives related to forest landownership, housing, sheep dairy, community kitchens, and home care. UWCC staff also helped existing cooperatives strengthen their governance practices with tailored programming on board evaluation, strategic planning, board duties, and the changing co-op business environment.
The Last Decade (2010 on!)
Over the last decade, UWCC staff have managed an ambitious, high impact portfolio of cooperative development programming, community outreach and education, applied research, and on-campus teaching.
UWCC has continued to offer education on cooperatives to students, cooperative leaders, and co-op developers through conferences, university courses, webinars, peer learning forums, and customized trainings for individual cooperatives.
UWCC’s Executive Director teaches a comprehensive class on cooperatives every year in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. AAE 323: Cooperatives and Alternative Forms of Enterprise Ownership explores why cooperatives and other user-owned enterprises emerge, who they serve, how they differ from other forms of enterprise, and the ways in which they can be used to address social, economic, and environmental challenges.
In 2016, UWCC returned to our role as stewards of CCMA, the largest national conference for the grocery cooperative community. CCMA provides a unique opportunity for grocery co-op leaders, board members, and legal and financial professionals to connect with one another and to learn and share knowledge regarding best practices.
Since 2016, UWCC has organized Co-op Director Forums that feature peer learning for cooperative board members in Wisconsin. And in 2021, we began partnering with Dr. Michael Boland from the University of Minnesota on the delivery of director education to agricultural cooperatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Center has also developed a robust library of webinars and other resources to support boards in their work.
In the past decade, UWCC grew its research program by engaging in several large-scale projects. These projects included efforts to identify factors that support collective action in rural communities, an inventory and assessment of cooperative development in Latinx communities, multiple national-level cooperative governance and finance surveys, and collaborations with the UW Business Dynamics Research Consortium and UW Extension’s Applied Population Lab to build comprehensive, national-level longitudinal frames for cooperative-business and rural economies. UWCC staff also spearheaded the creation of the University of Wisconsin Federal Research Data Center as part of its effort, in collaboration with the National Cooperative Business Association and the U.S. Census Bureau, to institute accounting, measurement, and reporting on cooperative businesses as part of the Census Bureau’s quinquennial Economic Census.
In 2021, UWCC provided critical research support to the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and the Cooperative Development Foundation’s (CDF) initiative on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Trends in the Cooperative Community, which included a national, one-time survey to learn about existing DEI efforts among cooperatives in the NCBA CLUSA/CDF community. The survey was the first of its kind in the cooperative community.
UWCC’s newest research project is the Cooperative Governance Research Initiative (CGRI), a national, cross sectoral, longitudinal study on cooperative governance practices. Its mixed-methods research design includes a triennial firm-level survey and follow-up interviews with a purposive sample of respondents that address topics such as board selection, director training, and member participation. The first CGRI survey yielded enthusiastic responses from 500 cooperatives, capturing substantial diversity in terms of industry, type, size, age, and location, and creating a baseline for the range and frequency of cooperative governance practices. We released a report on the 2021 CGRI findings in September 2022.
Over the past decade, UWCC has expanded its cooperative development programming to Wisconsin residents and other groups in the Midwest. Two programs have been the cornerstone of these activities: USDA’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program and the City of Madison’s 5-year investment in the creation of worker owned cooperatives.
In 2011, UWCC initiated a decade of concerted work in cooperative business development through USDA’s annual RCDG program, originally in partnership with Cooperative Network, the trade association for cooperatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And in 2017, the City of Madison announced dedicated funds ($3 million over five years) for worker cooperative development as a means of job creation, particularly in low-income and minority communities. Then-Executive Director Anne Reynolds contributed significantly to the vision that informed the proposals for the funds, and was a central figure in the formation of the coalition of community-based organizations, the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition, that ultimately received the funds. Between 2011 and 2022, UWCC provided technical assistance to 47 new cooperatives in sectors ranging from agriculture and grocery to home care and renewable energy.
UWCC was also a founding member of Workers to Owners, a national collaborative of organizations working to transition small businesses to worker- and employee-ownership that coalesced in 2015.
Since its establishment in 1962, the cooperative library has changed locations on campus and grown through donations of additional materials not available elsewhere. In 2019, UWCC began working with the UW-Madison library system to integrate the materials into their system in order to make the materials more broadly accessible to the public. The newly catalogued materials were attributed to “Torgerson Cooperative Collection.”