Happy Inauguration Day,” Joseph O. Holmes

August 2, 2019; Christian Science Monitor

In a time of widening economic gaps rivaling the Gilded Age just before the 1929 stock market crash, worker-owned businesses and management models that involve workers in corporate decision making are gaining increased attention. The Christian Science Monitor article states that 12 percent of US employees are working for organizations that have some form of employee ownership. That’s 17 million people. However, worker-ownership is not possible for US nonprofit corporations because they have no owners. So, what’s the relevance of the story to the nonprofit sector?

For one, a number of nonprofits have missions that involve advocating for a more equitable economy, which may include facilitating worker cooperatives. The writer quotes two representatives of nonprofit organizations whose work encompass developing theory and providing advice for worker-owned businesses. One of them, Marjorie Kelly, is executive vice president of The Democracy Collaborative, “a research and development lab for a democratic economy,” and the co-author of the recent book, The Making of a Democratic Economy: Building Prosperity for the Many, Not Just the Few. The other is David Hammer, the executive director of the ICA Group, which “seeks to create, promote, and support jobs, while collaborating with workers to define a truly entrepreneurial, democratic, and community-minded economy.”

There are also practitioners who connect the business sector to social sector goals. Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit plans to incubate worker cooperative conversions of businesses whose owners are nearing retirement without succession plans to save the jobs and preserve business know-how while training employees as future business owners. There’s also the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, whose mission is expanding business opportunities for entrepreneurs of color, including supporting worker-owned cooperatives. The ICA Group, mentioned above, works with home care companies including home care worker-owned cooperatives such as Cooperative Care in Wisconsin, mentioned in this NPQ article regarding strategies to address nonprofit wage ghettos.

Because its mission is to give voice to and win rights for 2.5 million domestic workers (nannies, housecleaners, and home care workers), a “vital American workforce that perform real, demanding work yet are denied basic labor rights, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, also mentioned in NPQ’s coverage of a new labor movement, deserves attention for its work. (Cooperative Care is represented on its board of directors.) Last month, NPQ also wrote about a fellowship program organized by two nonprofits, the Democracy at Work Institute and the National League of Cities, that is supporting conversions of existing businesses into worker cooperatives, as a way to maintain wealth and preserve employment in cities across the US.

There is one more reason for nonprofits to pay attention. We do not own our nonprofits, of course; by law, we steward them. But the ethos of shared decision-making prevalent in worker co-ops is not foreign to our sector. We have experimented with the idea of collective “ownership” of organizational agendas for at least a half-century; it is well past time to begin a serious effort to build more formal organizational systems that make best use of our collective energy and intelligence.—Kori Kanayama