The good old-fashioned cooperative (co-op for short) continues to demonstrate its merit as a time-tested alternative to extreme concentrations of wealth through private business ownership.
As one might imagine, Wall Street is not enamored with co-ops due to their intentional distribution of wealth. This makes financing co-ops challenging, even though their business models can be as good as any other bottom-line-focused company.
This is where the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund (LEAF) steps in. LEAF is a community development financial institution (CDFI) specializing in financing and supporting the development of co-ops, disadvantaged businesses, and similar social ventures. There are one thousand CDFIs operating nationally, but LEAF’s focus on co-ops is rare.
LEAF INVESTS IN THREE SPECIFIC TYPES OF CO-OPS:
- Food Co-ops
Most of us are familiar with consumer-owned natural food co-ops, which raise money from their local community to open and run grocery stores. They create local jobs and provide access to affordable, fresh food in both urban and rural areas.
- Low-Income Housing Co-ops
These help manufactured home (“mobile home”) owners organize to purchase the land underneath their homes so they don’t have to pay increasing rents to a landlord.
- Worker-Owned Co-ops with a focus on temporary staffing
Temp agency co-ops use their own worker-owners to provide temporary or seasonal employees to local businesses. LEAF can support worker-owned co-ops in virtually any field. The values they share include commitment to democratic principles, such as “one person, one vote,” and broad-based ownership of the business by worker-owners.
Since its founding more than 30 years ago, LEAF has invested and leveraged more than $122 million, resulting in the creation or retention of more than 10,300 jobs. Benefits have been broad-based:
- 88% of LEAF’s food co-op loans are in “food deserts” – communities that have no other local access to fresh food.
- LEAF has funded 368 housing units on land now owned by the community itself.
- Of the jobs LEAF has helped to create through investees’ training and placement programs, 5,100 of them are for people who had “barriers to employment” such as the formerly incarcerated, homeless, or addicted.
Seattle Electric Bike (SEB) is a great example of a LEAF cooperative investment from 2022 that offers both community and environmental benefits.
Founded in 2009, SEB expanded significantly over time to meet the growing demand for e-bikes – battery-powered bicycles which are easy to ride, offer a healthy, alternative form of transportation, and help reduce vehicle traffic and pollution. It opened new stores and eventually became the largest independent e-bike retailer in the Seattle region.
Yet, its founder was the only owner, and he wanted to retire and pass ownership to his eight-member team. SEB worked with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center to plan a transition to cooperative ownership. LEAF and Shared Capital stepped in with loans to fund the buyout and allow the new worker-owners to take SEB in new, innovative directions which could include e-bike rentals and online sales.
Investors in LEAF help finance a wide variety of transactions like this. Though LEAF is still a relatively small and lean organization, it has created an impressive long-term track record of empowering small community-based businesses to achieve their visions of a more inclusive and democratic approach to business ownership.
This publication is distributed to clients and friends of Natural Investments, LLC (NI). NI is an investment adviser registered with the SEC. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to contain recommendations or solicit sales of any specific investment. Authors, representatives, or related persons of NI may own securities mentioned in here.