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Community Investment Co-ops: putting your money to work locally

Wind farms, coffee roasters, chocolates, and community investment co-opsJust Us! Coffee Roasters is a worker co-op supported by a community investment co-op

What do RRSPs, tax credits, wind farms, coffee roasters, and chocolates have in common? Well, in Nova Scotia, they’re all interrelated – and each one supports the other in powerful ways. In fact, Nova Scotia is leading Canada in doing something that the rest of the country should be doing – putting money to work locally. We can start in BC by building community investment cooperatives. Here’s how, and why.

Nova Scotia pioneers in community investment

Nova Scotia has pioneered the use of investment cooperatives – called community economic development investment funds – as a really powerful way to mobilize local capital into supporting community projects. In short, community investment co-ops in Nova Scotia are opportunities where members of communities can invest in their community, often putting their RRSPs to work to support local business. This means that instead of routing your RRSP funds to a mutual fund to go to businesses in Toronto or other parts of the world, your investments can go to support a business in your community, and you can see the impact your dollars have immediately.

This all started with New Dawn Enterprises, a community response to the closing of the mines on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. New Dawn decided to find a way to support their community by supporting community businesses – and they stumbled across the potential to build community investment cooperatives. To listen to Rankin McSween, the CEO of New Dawn, tell this story is something else.

CEDIF: Community Economic Development Investment FundOne of my favourite community investment examples in Nova Scotia is Just Us! Coffee Roasters and chocolates. Just Us! is itself a workers’ cooperative – meaning that it’s owned and operated by the people that work there – and they have successfully generated local investment opportunities by starting up a community economic development investment fund to support their capitalisation. That means that if you live in Nova Scotia, you can put your RRSPs to work by investing in your local coffee and chocolate house – and make money doing so, because when Just Us! is successful, you can share in the profits. There are also a number of wind farm cooperatives that have been community funded in Nova Scotia.

The success of these community investment opportunities is founded on the fact that they’re cooperatives.1 Their cooperative structure means that every investor in the community investment co-op has a vote in the major decisions the cooperative takes, and that they are using the principles of cooperation to govern how the fund works. This means that instead of your RRSP funds being put into the care of a bank who then invests it without asking your opinion, when you invest in a community investment cooperative, you can have a say on where the investments are made – and it’s often just down the street. You can also easily see the fruits – or coffees – of your investment by observing the economic impact that they make: the coffee shop may have enough investment to hire more staff, who then inject their economic activity into the local economy. There’s also an incentive to support community businesses, because as they succeed, so too do your investments.

Albertan examples

After the success in Nova Scotia, a number of Alberta communities Crowsnest Pass Opportunity Development Cooperative logohave taken to building their own community investment co-ops. Called Opportunity Development Cooperatives in Alberta, community investment cooperatives are building up the capacity of communities all across the province to support local businesses, to allow local residents to make investments locally, and to build local economies. There have been many successful stories in Alberta of community investment co-ops, ranging from Sangudo, where a community investment coop created an opportunity for a meatpacker company to continue to serve a wide range of farmers, to the town of Crowsnest Pass, who are investing in community infrastructure and business.

What would it take to bring this to BC?

With the successes that Nova Scotia and Alberta have had, it might make perfect sense to build the potential for community investment cooperatives, opportunity development cooperatives, or community economic development investment funds in BC. There are millions of people in this province who would love the opportunity to make a local impact with their investments – Vancity, after all, is a sector leader in community investment as a credit union, and that spirit is what motivates so many of us to have accounts with them.

There are already a few communities working on starting community investment cooperatives. The Victoria Social Planning Council is one of the first to incorporate a community investment cooperative, and they’ve even published a great guide on how to do it. In my work with the BC Co-operative Association, I’ve also been able to work with a number of other communities – Gabriola Island, the Sunshine Coast, and more – who are all thinking of the same thing.

There are some things that the BC Government could do to make it easier to mobilize local investment, though. Currently, there’s a lot of red tape around making the investment happen. The Ministry of Finance could work with the community economic development sector to see how to manage risk and potential collaboratively. Creating a tax credit to encourage local investment could also be a powerful move.

If you’re interested in the potential of starting a community investment cooperative, get in touch. I’d love to see what kind of ideas you have in mind, and how we can harness the power of community investment cooperatives.

 

  1. In many cases. In others, they can be ordinary corporations

About Kevin Harding

Kevin Harding is a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, and is a volunteer board member of the Art for Impact Society. He has worked in the nonprofit, public, and cooperative sector for some time, and has a passion for working with coops, nonprofits, and advocacy groups that want to make a better world. A coop developer, he strongly believes that cooperatives can build a better world.

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