What is a Co-operative?

As its name implies, a co-operative is about people coming together to meet common need - be it economic, social, cultural, environmental - or all the above. It is a versatile business model that can operate in every sector of the economy, and in both urban and rural settings. Please note that when using the term "co-operative," we are referring to both non-financial and financial co-operative organizations.

A co-operative is a legally incorporated corporation that is owned by its members, who use the co-operative's services or purchase their products. They can and do provide virtually every product or service, and can be either for-profit or non-profit enterprises.  

Co-operatives are community-focused businesses that balance people, planet and profit. They are democratic and value-based by nature, and are often formed to fill a void within a community, to seize local opportunities and to meet the needs of its member-owners. Whether the members are the customers, employees or residents, they have an equal say in what the business does and share in the profits. Profits are distributed to members based on the amount of business they do with the co-operative.

As such, co-operative businesses keep dollars circulating within the local economy, provide secure employment, and help revitalize, build and sustain healthy communities.


Listen to this 2022 podcast "The Culture of Co-operatives" with Executive Director Erin Morgan, who shares the basics of co-ops, their roots and why we could use a whole lot more of them - and why a more co-operative approach provides more possibilities for a cultural shift away from capitalism. 

The key organizational difference between a co-operative corporation and other corporate business enterprises is democratic participation through a "one-member, one-vote" process. In a traded company, shareholders are entitled to as many votes as they hold shares. Each member of a co-operative, however, is entitled to ONE vote, regardless of their level of investment. Consequently, no single member can take control of a co-operative, and decisions are made by and for the majority.

Another key distinction is that business corporations are mandated by law to provide shareholder value - i.e., the pursuit of profit - which means they must continually grow and/or cut costs to provide shareholder returns. Co-operative corporations are owned by their members, and while they provide value to their membership, their primary responsibility is to meet their members' needs. Members determine how the co-operative operates, elect the Board of Directors, and allocate the profits amongst its member-owners.

A co-operative's business decisions are also guided by a set of co-operative principleswhich keeps their need for profitability balanced with the needs of their members and the well-being of their communities. As a result, co-ops tend to be a more sustainable business model with a high success rate - twice as many co-operatives remain in operation compared to other forms of business enterprise after 10 years! Compare the key differences between co-operatives and private businesses, or learn about some highly innovative co-operative models

There are many different types of co-operatives operating in a variety of business sectors all over the world. The main categories of co-operatives include: consumer, producer or marketing, worker, multi-stakeholder, financial, and housing. In Ontario, co-operatives can and do provide a diversity of products and services, including: agriculture, food and farm, tourism, art and culture, child care, housing, retail goods, renewable energy, transportation, social services, natural resources, financial and insurance services, and even funeral services!

Check out profiles of some of our member organizations to learn more about some of the key co-operative business sectors in the province, or the videos below to learn more about co-operatives...