The global cooperative movement has expanded exponentially over the past three decades. Over 1 billion people worldwide are members of cooperative organizations, including more than 100 million Americans. Cooperatives play an integral role in local, national and global economies, but many people still don’t fully understand how cooperatives’ value and structure differ from other business types.
Founded in 1895, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) has worked to establish and advance a set of universal standards and values that all co-ops must follow. The ICA defines a cooperative (co-op) as an “autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”
Unlike other traditional business models such as sole proprietorships, partnerships, S-corps and C-corps, cooperatives strive to create value that transcends bottom line profit. Cooperatives flatten organizational hierarchies and bring people together in a democratic way -- following the standard “one member, one vote” rule for decision-making.
Instead of focusing predominantly on maximizing profits and expansion, cooperatives have a civic responsibility to stay true to their core set of six community-oriented values established by the ICA: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. All cooperatives base their key decisions on these fundamentals.
Most co-op definitions segment cooperative organizations into five categories based on industry and structure:
Worker cooperatives are usually in the retail and service industries. Collectively-run shops and bartender-owned breweries are examples of worker co-ops. For instance, Equal Exchange is a fair trade coffee distributor owned equally by their 130 cooperative workers.
Producer co-ops are often made up of a group of agricultural producers who come together to market their products or optimize production processes. Land O’Lakes, Inc. is an agricultural and food producing co-op that is owned by over 7,000 farmer-members.
Consumer co-ops are retailers that are owned by customers who buy goods from the store. REI, one of the most recognizable co-ops in the U.S., offers $20 lifetime memberships which include member only discounts, dividend earning programs and the opportunity to contribute to advancing the organization’s mission and values.
Purchasing co-ops establish a bond between multiple independent businesses, owners or municipalities that improves their collective purchasing power, competitiveness and quality of service. Ace Hardware, for example, is a purchasing cooperative that enables small, locally-owned hardware stores to purchase merchandise in bulk at the lowest possible price point.
Hybrid co-ops are a combination of two or more of the above co-op organizational models.
Regardless of co-op type, the ICA holds co-ops to higher, more community-oriented standards than non-cooperative businesses. In 1995, the ICA adopted 7 core co-op principles that all cooperatives are expected to embody:
Cooperatives are open to all who want to join -- without discrimination based on gender, social status, race, political views or religion. Membership should be voluntary and available to anyone who is willing to accept responsibilities and complete the work that all members are expected to do.
Democratic values are central to every cooperative. Primary cooperatives are organized so each member has one vote. Other types of cooperatives are also organized in a democratic fashion, where all members have the opportunity to contribute and shape policy and values. Elected representatives usually lead meetings and are accountable for membership responsibilities.
Cooperative capital is controlled democratically and contributed equitably to members. A portion of the cooperative should be common property owned collectively by cooperative members. Excess resources are allocated to advance the cooperative’s mission and goals by: expanding the cooperative, setting up reserves (part of which can be indivisible), benefiting members based on the extent of their involvement with the cooperative, and developing other activities agreed upon by the membership.
Independence, autonomy, and self-help are all key attributes of cooperatives and their members. If cooperatives intend to collaborate with other organizations (including government agencies), or raise capital from outside sources, they must maintain independent democratic status and total cooperative autonomy for their assets.
Education, training, information sharing and professional development are central to cooperative values. Cooperatives must provide education and training for members, elected representatives, and managers. Cooperatives should make a concerted effort to inform the public -- especially younger generations and community influencers -- about the nature and benefits of co-operative structure.
Cooperatives should collaborate with other cooperative associations and community organizations. They should strive to serve all members and strengthen the local, national, and regional international cooperative movement with their efforts.
Sustainability and community development should be integral in all policies approved by cooperative members.
Needless to say, cooperatives are held to substantially higher ethical standards than non-cooperative businesses. With the cooperative principles at the forefront of every critical decision, it’s important that cooperatives convey their values to public audiences and emphasize that importance of being a cooperative organization.
One of the easiest ways to demonstrate your cooperative status is to register for a .COOP domain name. Unlike signing up for unregulated top level domains (TLDs), .COOP domains are reserved exclusively for cooperatives and cooperative organizations that meet specific Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) guidelines.
In January 2002, ICANN activated .COOP as a new top level domain (nTLD) and instilled the requirement that cooperatives prove their “co-operative” status before getting their .COOP domain names officially activated. Here are several reasons why it’s advantageous for co-ops to use .COOP domain names:
Purchasing a .COOP domain requires going through the .COOP domain registration and approval process through a licensed .COOP domain registrar.
Encirca is the only North American .COOP domain registrar that is SOC2 certified -- undergoing independent SOC2 audits annually to ensure that it meets top cybersecurity, availability and confidentiality standards. As the most secure .COOP registrar on the market, Encirca is also responsible for managing the GET.COOP registration portal.
Using SSL Certificate encryption, Secure DNS, Secure Web Hosting, multi-factor authentication, DMARC email authentication, and registrar locks to ensure maximum security, your co-op can rest easy knowing that the best defense mechanisms are at work protecting your .COOP website.
Any person or company can log onto general domain registrars and buy an unrestricted TLD. The most popular TLDs -- .com, .net and .org -- are unrestricted and available to anyone on a first-come-first-serve basis. Unrestricted TLDs are not required to go through any verification processes when the buyer purchases a domain name or at any point after purchase, making it impossible to fully know the intentions of the website operators.
Using a .COOP domain name signals to the broader web browsing world that you are a verified co-op and believe in community-oriented values. While it’s not fair to presume that businesses with .com, .net and .org TLDs are unethical, it’s wise to be cautious and not assume they run perfectly ethical operations either.
Rigorous regulations ensure that only registered co-ops can have .COOP domain names. In a world short on trust, this represents a major advantage and differentiation factor. Your .COOP domain name announces to all web visitors that you’re different from the common business. .COOP states that you have ethical goals and values that extend far beyond merely maximizing profits.
Co-op values can be utilized as key assets when marketing products or services. A company’s domain name is one of the first things people associate with their brand. It’s imperative to select a domain name that distinctly represents your organization and aligns with your collective values. Selecting a catchy, recognizable .COOP domain name will differentiate your co-op from your competitors and allow you to rise above the masses of websites out there.
With a .COOP domain name, you can easily assign .COOP email addresses to co-op members. When reaching out to a stranger with your .COOP email address, you instantly signal that you represent a reputable organization. In today’s time of information overload and constant spam emails, your .COOP email address could be the difference between the recipient reading your email and the start of a productive new relationship, or not.
Beyond email addresses, you can maximize your .COOP domain name on any and all marketing materials that your co-op uses. Business cards, flyers, packaging, souvenirs -- any marketing materials associated with your brand -- can be used to promote your .COOP domain name and co-op values.
You also can choose a valuable .COOP domain that is synonymous with your industry. This is a particularly effective strategy if your co-op is relatively new or looking to grow. Cropp Cooperative, an organic, farmer-owned cooperative, uses the domain name “farmers.coop.” Perhaps some customers won’t remember the name “Cropp Cooperative,” but the vast majority will be able to recall, identify and be impressed by the “farmers.coop” brand.
Even if you already have a large scale .com website, purchasing a relevant .COOP domain is still a wise decision. Large organizations often use both .COOP and .com domains to point to their primary website. They can do this by setting up awebpage 301 redirect which points all traffic to their primary website. When you type in “rei.coop” in the search bar, you will be automatically redirected to REI’s consolidated website -- REI.com.
Another pro tip is to buy the rights to domain names similar to yours. You never know who might want to put something on the internet intended to harm your business. This is a common defense practice that businesses across industries employ. Own domain name variants, set up 301 redirects to your primary website and rest easier knowing that you built a formidable defense around your brand.
Migrating your entire website from a .com to a .COOP may not make sense right now -- especially if you already have a recognized brand and website. With that said, it still may be wise to organize particular parts of your website on a .COOP domain.
You may want to showcase your community involvement and philanthropic endeavors on a .COOP domain. This could be integrated as one section of your current .com website that focuses on your cooperative values.
Make sure to do your due diligence on domain registrar cybersecurity measures before buying your .COOP domain. A reputable domain registrar should:
Just like when you make any important investment, do a thorough background check on the domain registrar. Some questions to consider when analyzing domain registrar reputation:
Shopping around and assessing .COOP domain price ranges and package variations is always wise before making an investment. With that said, be wary of domain prices that seem ridiculously low. The old cliche that goes, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is” is relevant to cheap domains.
Read the fine print for any .COOP domain name listed for just a few dollars. They may not go through all the necessary steps to register your domain name legally with ICANN. They may have poor customer service. The price may be low for one year and then shoot up exponentially in your second year without you realizing.
For reference, .COOP domains usually start in the ~$75 range and above per year and premium .COOP domains may cost considerably more than this. Understand exactly what you’re getting with your domain name and select a registrar that meets your needs.
Buying a .COOP domain is slightly more involved than buying .com or .org domains. Restricted TLDs require verification that the business adheres to co-op principles.
The domain registrar should be able to explain the verification process and answer your questions. The registrar should make this process simple and self-explanatory. You shouldn’t have to search high and low for a phone number, online chat support features or FAQs.
Registering your official .COOP domain with EnCirca is easy. Type your desired .COOP domain name in the search box at the top of our .COOP info page to check availability.
If your desired .COOP domain name is available, you can add the .COOP domain name to your shopping cart and check out.
After completing your purchase, you will receive an email from dotCoop to begin verifying your cooperative status.
Once you complete the verification process, the .COOP domain will officially be yours.
Build your site, set up branded .COOP email addresses and showcase your cooperative status to the world!