The nonprofit where the three of us work, Co-op Cincy, is an incubator of worker cooperatives based in Cincinnati, OH. We were founded in 2011 by a group of labor, community, and immigrant rights organizers. Over the years, we have nurtured a variety of local co-op start-ups—from a residential energy efficiency firm to an urban farm. We train hundreds annually about the benefits of worker ownership and have helped local co-op businesses secure $220,000 in loans.
Advocacy is in our organization’s DNA. And so, you might think we would be good at advocating for ourselves.
Yet while we are highly trained in relationship-based organizing, when it came to advocating on behalf of our own organization, we were anything but experts. For years, we read about economic development assistance from our city and other funders, but we were never on the receiving end of such assistance. A Brookings Institution report published in 2018 noted that from 2012-2016, local and state government in Cincinnati spent an estimated $711 million on tax abatements for corporations. How much of that support went to worker cooperatives? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, was zero.
Could this ever change? To be honest, for years we didn’t even consider how to answer that question. But around the time of that Brookings report, we began to ask ourselves: Why aren’t we part of the city’s economic development plan? And what actions could we take to change that?
A small nonprofit with a budget of less than $500,000, we were certain that despite our size, we could have a big impact in Cincinnati, providing business ownership opportunities to people from underserved and historically marginalized groups and helping to tackle the looming baby boomer succession crisis, or “silver tsunami.”
Around the country, we began to notice that bigger cities like New York were incorporating co-op development into their budgets. We felt Cincinnati should do the same, but how could we make that happen?
This question led to a multi-year effort to secure city funding—an effort that finally began to bear fruit this year. We believe that other co-op developers—and perhaps other nonprofits seeking to advocate for their organizations—might be able to learn from our mistakes and eventual success. And so, here’s our story.
First Try, First Belly Flop
We began seeking funding for worker co-op development in earnest in 2019. Before we requested funding, we realized we needed a better understanding of city government and the budget process. Cincinnati, a city with a population of around 300,000, has an annual total budget of approximately $1.5 billion and a tradition of funding local nonprofits. Recent city governments were largely Democratic. To learn how municipal government allocated funding, we talked to knowledgeable community partners, participated in a political fellowship, and secured a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation to support the staff training and organizing that we knew we would need.
We began by meeting one-on-one with sympathetic city council members and forming relationships. We identified a city council “champion,” council member David Mann. In 2019, after meeting with us, Mann passed a motion asking the city to conduct a study on how worker co-ops could impact the local economy. The study ended up being short and underwhelming, but in 2020, Mann and Co-op Cincy co-drafted a budget request and action plan. We then assembled residents to speak in favor of our request, organization, and work.
We also developed a civic engagement training session for our co-op members, helping them understand the connection between their co-op’s democratic operations and why it was so important to engage these same democratic muscles in our broader community. We educated city staff and council members on co-ops, including through a session at our biennial symposium. We also talked with the city’s Office of Procurement about supporting worker ownership. And we partnered with the city to conduct an info session for business representatives on the co-op model and converting businesses to worker ownership in cases where owners were nearing retirement.
At the city council’s public comments sessions in 2020, our community speakers were powerful. “Covid-19 has already caused one in every 50 small businesses to close their doors permanently, and more are expected to close once the federal loans dry up,” said Co-op Cincy board member Jaime Love. “We want to reverse this trend by opening up opportunities for small businesses to sell their company to their employees. We want to focus these efforts on businesses that are owned by people of color so we can continue to build business ownership in the communities that need it most.” City council member David Mann spoke eloquently about the benefit that our co-ops were having in the community. Nonetheless, when city council voted, Co-op Cincy wasn’t on the list of funding recipients.
Back to the Drawing Board
Afterward, we discussed our efforts and tried to identify why we fell short. We understood that one big contributing factor was the unexpected budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. We also believed we did not start early enough in the year and needed more buy-in from council members.
So, in 2021 we tried again, starting earlier and seeking more meetings. In large part because of COVID-19, we didn’t offer educational sessions about the co-op model. We did have a few more one-on-ones with council members, but we gained no additional supporters. In 2020, 11 speakers from the community testified at public comments sessions. In 2021, a similar number spoke, though the group included a broader range of supporters, ranging from Co-op Cincy board directors to rank-and-file co-op members. Mann, our city council champion, remained eloquent in his support, and there were signs of imminent success: he passed a motion to fund us, and we were initially included in the city budget. Yet our efforts still weren’t enough, and we were ultimately left out of city council’s final budget.
Adjusting Our Approach
To forge relationships with as many city council members as possible, we tried not simply meeting with them in their offices (or by Zoom), but instead bringing them on actual tours of our co-ops, so they could meet co-op members and see what our businesses do. These tours spread awareness about the co-op business model and how it’s growing in Cincinnati.We had improved on our efforts between year one and two, but when we analyzed our shortcomings, we realized several areas needed attention. We had relied heavily on coordinating our strategy with a single city council champion. Despite meeting with a few additional council members, we encountered resistance from others, who remained far less familiar with us.
For our third effort, we took a new approach. To forge relationships with as many city council members as possible, we tried not simply meeting with them in their offices (or by Zoom), but also bringing them on tours of our co-ops so they could meet co-op members and see what our businesses do. These tours spread awareness about the co-op business model and how it’s growing in Cincinnati. They also showed our workers doing the work they do every day: caring for children, insulating houses, growing food.
We individually invited each council member to attend a tour. Of the nine-member city council, three members attended a tour, and one sent a staff member in his place. During the tours, we provided a one-pager that spoke to one of the issues the council was most concerned about: creating jobs in the city for underserved communities. As we took the council members to different co-ops, we educated them on the broad range of our programs—from training for start-ups to ongoing technical assistance and our co-op network.
We also arranged for groups comprised of co-op workers, board members, staff, and community supporters to meet with several council members. And we assigned one staff member to communicate with each council member’s office, checking in, asking if there was more that we could do, and letting them know we were invested and paying close attention. Through these efforts, we secured two new champions (our previous champion had left the council). In addition, we won over three additional vocal city council members.
We made another change our third year: not lowballing our request for support. In the past we had asked for $50,000 from the city. That third year, we requested $300,000, figuring we might have a better chance of gaining some support if we asked for a larger amount. We also wanted to make sure we had enough money to provide meaningful loans to co-op businesses. Half of the $300,000 would go to our loan fund, which facilitates transitions of existing businesses to worker ownership and supports new worker-owned businesses in need of capital. The other half would fund our technical assistance program, enabling us to help worker-owned businesses continue operating.
As before, we urged board directors, staff, co-op members, supporters, and community partners to speak at the city council’s public comments sessions. We made an effort to have our strongest showing yet. If someone couldn’t be present, we asked them to submit written comments. We gave speakers instructions on how to submit testimony, covering everything from time limits to locations. We also provided a rough guide of talking points and did mini run-throughs and public-speaking trainings with anyone who wanted additional support. Our efforts paid off; 20 speakers testified on our behalf at the sessions.
We also worked to have advocates at every public hearing held while city council was crafting its budget. We encouraged advocates to speak about how our loan fund and programs would build a foundation for sustainable wealth and keep good-paying jobs in the city. Advocates offered persuasive testimony that cohered around our key message.
Ken Kabel, an advisory board member, told the city council, “A key component of this work is a revolving loan fund that allows teams of cooperative entrepreneurs to access capital and finance their businesses.”
Supporter Beth Robeson said, “When you walk into a worker-owned business, where employees have that ownership, you can feel it. You can feel the difference in the business, and that difference has a ripple effect that spreads across our whole community.”
And Kristen Barker, our executive director, spoke about how Co-op Cincy models our activities on Mondragon’s cooperative network in the Basque region of Spain. In the same way that Mondragon transformed that region, employing an estimated 80,000 people and dramatically reducing inequality, Co-op Cincy’s long-term goal is to transform Greater Cincinnati. “As members of the city council, you have the ability to take bold, creative action,” Barker urged.
In mid-June, when city council allocated funds to community organizations, we were ecstatic to see that $100,000 had been earmarked for Co-op Cincy. It was less than our $300,000 ask, but double what we had requested in 2020 and 2021. Our efforts, and the efforts of our supporters, had paid off. The motion’s language echoed our focus on providing ownership opportunities to people from underserved and historically marginalized communities, reading: “We must continue to support minority economic opportunities that lead towards mobility and stability while also ensuring that our social safety net remains strong.”
With this funding, we will expand our support for worker-owned businesses in Cincinnati through loans and technical assistance, creating family-sustaining jobs and broadening the city’s ownership economy. In the future, we hope to become a permanent part of the city budget and continue growing. We also intend to use the city’s support to obtain additional funding.
Be persistent in your efforts to secure funding, all the while continuing to do the work that will broaden ownership and benefit the city’s economy. The first year, you may not succeed. But if you keep plugging away, breakthroughs are possible.
What lessons does our story offer other co-op organizers and nonprofit advocates? How can others learn from our example when seeking support from a city or local government? Of course, every community is different, and any good advocacy strategy must be attuned to local conditions. That said, we draw a few lessons from our experience.
The first is to develop relationships with a broad range of key government figures, such as council members, and educate them about your activities, including through tours, which will help them see the important work you are doing up close. A second lesson is to bring a variety of advocates to public training sessions and offer a focused message in support of your budget request. Use such sessions to train co-op members, helping them develop their public speaking skills and see the connections between the co-op movement and the broader community. A third lesson is to be persistent in your efforts to secure funding, all the while continuing to do the work that will broaden ownership and benefit the city’s economy. The first year, you may not succeed. But if you keep plugging away, breakthroughs are possible.
Of course, we are under no illusions about how much we received. The $100,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions in tax abatements and other economic development incentives that corporations get in Cincinnati every year. A recent blog notes that our home state of Ohio was number one nationally in such giveaways in the first quarter of 2022.
Still, it’s far better to be part of the budget than not included. What was achieved, we recognize, is a beginning. It’s a reminder that economic development starts at home. Our victory this year, in short, gives us something to build on.
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