The International Co-Operative Alliance and the First Cooperative Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in an ongoing series by Kris White on the seven cooperative principles, adopted and revised by the International Cooperative Alliance. Be sure to check back over the coming weeks as Kris continues to expatiate upon these seven core principles and values. Feel free to join in the discussion below.

In 1895, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) was formed “to unite, represent, and serve co-operatives worldwide.” The ICA represents 308 cooperative federations and organizations across 107 countries (April 2018). The members of the Alliance are national level cooperative federations, individual cooperative organizations, and government offices concerned with cooperatives. The ICA defines a cooperative as an “autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

In 1995, the ICA adopted a revised Statement on the Co-operative Identity which contains the definition of a cooperative, the values of a cooperative, and the seven cooperative principles. The current seven cooperative principles had their roots in the Rochdale Principles adopted in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, a consumer cooperative in Rochdale, England. The ICA adopted their version of these principles in 1937. They were revised again in 1966 and most recently in 1995.

The first of the seven cooperative principles is Voluntary and Open Membership. This means that co-operatives are voluntary organizations open to all persons able to use the cooperative’s services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination. This ensures that all people have the same opportunity to obtain membership in the cooperative and, once a member, receive the same benefits of membership as all other members. However, this does not stop a cooperative from setting ground rules for membership such as paying a fee to join or requiring that a member buying into a housing cooperative is in good financial standing.

In 1966 the word, “voluntary” was added to this first cooperative principle to affirm that any person is free to decide to join or leave a cooperative:

In the history of co-operatives there are many examples where the principle of voluntary association in co-operatives has not been observed. Cultural norms such as women being required to cease to be members of a co-operative when they marry or being denied membership because men are heads of households are a clear breach of this principle. Some governments that used co-operatives as government controlled engines of economic development made membership of co-operatives compulsory. This too breaches this 1st principle. The right of voluntary association to form co-operatives can also be frustrated by national legislative, tax and administrative systems which favour the investor owned model of business enterprise and do not take account of the specific nature of co-operative enterprise…. (Kurimoto, Akira , Guidance Notes to the Cooperative Principles: Principal 1 , International Cooperative Alliance,, page 6)

Despite these historical examples where the first principle was not observed, it is equally true that the concept of a voluntary and open membership has been an important principle since it was first included in the Rochdale Principles in 1844. It is also worth noting that this principle has been reaffirmed during each review and revision of the cooperative principles since 1844.

To learn more about the history of the cooperative movement, go to:
To learn more about the cooperative identity, values and principals, go to:

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