10 tips for starting a buying group or cooperative

Electric plug on top of cash and an electric bill

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Values, vision and information are important for organizations seeking to band together to purchase goods and services, say experts in the field.

Faith-based cooperatives have been around for hundreds of years, yet few religious groups have come together to buy electricity and other basic services in bulk. But as congregations age and membership declines, the idea is gaining ground.

Here are some pointers for getting started from leaders at Washington, D.C.’s Community Purchasing Alliance:

  • Recruit a group of congregations with shared values and a willingness to work together.
  • Articulate a vision for what the cooperative could do, such as joint procurement of gas and electric contracts, custodial and landscaping contracts, copier leasing, office supplies, solar panels, boilers and other needs.
  • Define the values the cooperative would achieve -- saving money, caring for the environment, ensuring fair labor practices, etc.
  • Interview executives at 10 congregations to help define the need. What do they spend the most money on? What kinds of contracts are coming up for renewal? “Find the point of pain,” said Felipe Witchger, the executive director of the Community Purchasing Alliance.
  • Identify community experts that can offer advice on the particular bulk purchasing the group wants to pursue. These may be lawyers who can draft contracts, energy-sector professionals, facility managers or community organizers.
  • Research state and municipal laws governing energy or other services. Only 12 states have deregulated electricity markets, but about two dozen have deregulated gas markets. And while some municipalities haul trash, others contract that out to private firms.
  • Raise seed money to hire a director. Volunteers are fine but often have competing demands on their time. The upfront investment of money should come from potential members. “They have to have skin in the game to make it successful,” said Paul Hazen, the executive director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council and board president of the Community Purchasing Alliance.
  • Appoint a board chair and draft bylaws and articles of incorporation.
  • Invite nonprofit organizations in the community to offer their expertise and/or become members.
  • Read online resources. Hazen recommends the National Cooperative Business Association and CooperationWorks! The Cooperative Development Network.