Churches join forces to save money via cooperatives

Monday, September 1, 2014

Religious denominations in the United States have supported the creation of cooperatives for decades. Organizations and individuals of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish traditions all have provided critical help to the cooperative movement for economic and social justice. Now these same faith-based organizations have organized a cooperative for their own benefit.

One church was paying $2,000 a month for trash hauling; it now pays $300. Another institution saw its monthly copier bill drop from $2,400 to $600. In both cases, the organizations had no idea their previous contracts had such unfavorable terms.

Having spent most of my career promoting cooperatives at the national and international level, I have found it rewarding to work with a new co-op called the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) in developing what we hope is a model that can spread across the nation.

For many years, I sat in the pew of Foundry UMC thinking about how we could harness the economic power of faith-based organizations for social justice. In CPA, I believe we’ve made an important step toward fulfilling our missions together in a way that makes each congregation more environmentally and economically sustainable.

Faith organizations suffered a significant drop in contributions in the 2008-09 recession. This was certainly the situation for the UMC. According to BWC Treasurer Paul Eichelberger, congregations in the BWC saw an average of a 5 percent decline in contributions during this time. This situation repeated itself across the faith-based community.

In response, a group of religious leaders in Washington, D.C., gathered to discuss forming a purchasing cooperative to cut costs.

In 2011, a dozen congregations purchased electricity together and saved nearly $100,000.

By 2012 there were more than 110 participants and soon they were expanding to other services. The co–operative was formally incorporated in March of this year.

CPA has three goals: saving money for its members through bulk purchases; organizing for social change; and aiding the environment. Rebates and dividends are used for investments in sustainability, worker equity and community organizing. While it’s not always possible, the cooperative tries to support only vendors who engage in business practices consistent with the group’s values and social mission.

The cooperative has achieved major savings in contracts for electricity, natural gas, trash hauling, copier services, heating and air conditioning, cleaning supplies and solar panels. With many members having large sanctuaries, utility bills have been a particular
source of savings. Priority is given to local vendors that show a commitment to worker fairness, economic justice, concern for community, renewable energy and environmental sustainability. More than 150 institutions have participated in CPA purchasing programs, with average annual savings of over $8,000.

“If all 600-plus churches in the BWC joined the CPA, our collective savings would be $4.8 million, money that could be used for ministry and mission,” stated the Rev. Joe Daniels, Greater Washington District Superintendent and an early supporter of the CPA.

Most of the facilities of these organizations are managed by people with little experience in negotiating contracts. An early participant, the Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol of Mount Vernon Place UMC in Washington, put it this way: “These are not the kinds of things that are taught at seminary.”

Interested in joining a CPA? Visit www.cpa.coop.

by Paul Hazen; Financial Development Committee Chair at Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C.

 

UMConnectional; September 2014, page 3