Membership Transition

membership transition handstyle
Every new person changes the culture.
Alchemy Collective Cafe (USA)


  • EXIT


In cooperatives, members come and go due to a variety of reasons. Youth are more transient in all aspects of life than other age groups, given that phase of life is known for significant changes such as leaving home, transitioning family structures, taking on new financial responsibilities, pursuing formal education or training, among other things. Accordingly, while membership transition is a universal occurrence, it is a much more common factor of the lifecycles of youth cooperatives and, thereby, it is imperative that the process be well managed in order to maintain the integrity and viability of a cooperative. Poorly managed member transitions can signal the end for cooperatives when the portion of members sufficiently educated and acclimated to living and working cooperatively dips below a critical mass. Among cooperative practitioners in various industries, there are some anecdotal ideas of how many cooperators are sufficient to maintain a strong culture in the face of transitions. For example, the maintenance of at least one-third of the members of a student housing cooperative (a type of youth adjacent cooperative with especially high turnover) is strongly correlated with a successful transition. While there is no single magic number for cooperatives, the higher the number of sufficiently oriented cooperators in a membership, the more likely a cooperative is to survive through to the next lifecycle and a renewed membership. 


In discussing entrance issues, methods of recruitment play a central role, as do the overall new member acceptance and onboarding processes. For youth, the burden of initial education with new members is often greater than it is for older cooperatives. Most new members are joining a cooperative for the first time and may have little to no knowledge of cooperative philosophy, practice, or the movement. Often, if a young person has familiarity with a cooperative, it can actually be a detriment and added burden to the recruitment and onboarding process. This is because many peoples throught the world harbor negative associations with cooperatives as a result of governments using them as tools of colonization and war. And, the modern day epidemic of nominal cooperatives operating as capitalist businesses has biased many against cooperatives, can serve to attract uncooperative members, and muddy the conceptual and ideological waters of cooperativism for new members. The experience of onboarding and accepting a new member in a youth cooperative can offer especially valuable insights to the movement at large, given that youth cooperatives are often seeking to onboard members who are the hardest to recruit as well as require a great deal of education and/or unlearning.


Youth cooperatives experience higher risk departures than older cooperatives as they are typically “first generation” organizations that will eventually have to manage the departure of their founders. Not all youth founders leave their cooperatives, but most do at some juncture. Despite every best intention and well-designed role, founders are often burdened with an emotional connection to the cooperative unmatched by newer members, as well as by the deference of power (both conscious and unconscious) by newer members to them as a founder. This style of deference can mirror the deference young people will sometimes exhibit in relationships with elders and institutions, given that most cultures place a high value on seniority. Given the intensity of the founder-cooperative relationship, sometimes it is imperative that a founder leaves for the cooperative to be truly equitable and successful; other times, the departure of a founder may signal the end of a cooperative. Even non-founder transitions bring similar challenges, as an imbalance in experience and seniority often exists in youth cooperatives given that many new members have no past cooperative knowledge or experience. This seniority power imbalance can fester in a way that the newer members remain disempowered and don’t actively step into leadership roles, making them ill equipped to manage the cooperative once the more senior members depart. The goal is to survive these inevitable transitions of leadership and use them as opportunities of development.

Transition Beyond Elder or Institutional Control

Unique to youth cooperatives is the “departure” of elder control, when elder or institutionally initiated youth cooperatives transition to full youth control and autonomy. There are parallels to this in the intergenerational movement, as paternalistic “build it and they will come” development models persist in certain parts of the world, especially in the realm of international development projects conducted by wealthier nations in poorer nations. Candidly, these elder and institutional transitions can be especially difficult if not well managed, and, as a result, they can become painfully antagonistic, or a paternal dynamic can persist even after the cooperative has become “autonomous.”


Depending on whether a cooperative participates in the fiscal economy, the equity model of a cooperative, and how much surplus it has accumulated, a cooperative may have to pay out dividends to members when exiting the cooperative. This is a portion of the “equity” (i.e. estimated value of a cooperative less its liabilities) a member is due relative to how much they participated in the cooperative during their tenure. The value calculated as equity includes all kinds of asseture, not just liquid assets (i.e. currency). The necessary equity, as a result, may not be immediately accessible in cash and might not be able to be paid out whenever a member chooses to exit. To account for this, cooperatives typically codify a time period by which they must pay dividends to departed members. In youth cooperatives, payouts are not a regular occurrence for obvious reasons: nascent organizations with minimal surplus for distribution, not (yet or ever) participating in the fiscal economy, or a hyper simple equity model. Additionally, for nascent cooperatives like most youth cooperatives, paying out equity to a first round of departing members can prove to be harmful to a cooperative, as the cooperative then cannot choose to reinvest the accumulated surplus in order to grow or scale the cooperative’s operations. In other words, a cooperative can bankrupt itself by paying out too many dividends too soon in its existence. Similarly, sometimes the amount of equity accumulated by a small cooperative or by a member with a very brief membership tenure is so minimal, that the operational cost of calculating and distributing an equity payout is not sufficiently proportionate, i.e. it does not make financial or logistical sense. Some youth cooperatives simply don't offer dividend pay-outs because the membership has not thought to do so, or does not feel it is necessary or appropriate culturally or for some of the reasons already listed.

Institutional Memory

Maintaining a cooperative’s institutional memory and culture is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of member departures. When members leave, they not only take their oral histories with them, they also decrease the capacity of the cooperative to address current decisions and issues with a more contextualized, macro perspective that comes with historical knowledge of organizational patterns and events. Institutional memory is often a proportionate indicator of organizational health; however, the relationship is trickier than it seems, as sometimes certain norms or practices need to be changed, but are held onto as canon because “that’s how we have always done it.” When this kind of mentality persists, it is often because a founder or senior member is struggling to remain dynamic and responsive to the changing needs of the cooperative, or they may have reached the necessary end of their tenure. Other times, there is a norm or practice that serves a cooperative well, but there is insufficient documentation and it is maintained through oral communication or the labor of a particular member. If the member(s) with that knowledge depart(s), an element of the cooperative’s functionality can fall apart due to the lack of documentation or training of continuing members. Managing what gets remembered and how those things get recorded varies by cooperative, since communication and documentation styles are culturally specific. While there are best practices, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions for sustaining and passing on culture and memory.