The Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE) is a community development financial institution (CDFI) that is a bridge between socially responsible investors and co-operatives, community oriented non-profits, and worker-owned businesses in New England. Equal Exchange Food Service Sales Representative, LJ Taylor, is the former board president of CFNE.
Ashley Symons: LJ, how and when did you get involved with CFNE? LJ Taylor: I came to work with CFNE and its sister fund, Co-op Capital Fund, through a former Equal Exchange worker-owner, Erbin Crowell. He was doing some recruitment for the CFNE board, and thought of me. Here at Equal Exchange we are encouraged to use 10% of our work time to develop ourselves outside of our regular work duties. The CFNE board is volunteer work, so I used that 10% and more, and I thoroughly enjoyed the work.
Ashley: What relationship has Equal Exchange traditionally had with CFNE?
LJ: Equal Exchange was an early borrower from the CFNE. These funds were integral in Equal Exchange's ability to build its business and gain funding. It can be hard for worker-owned co-operatives to gain traditional sources of funding. In turn, Equal Exchange is now an investor in CFNE and is helping co-operatives all over New England through this investment. Additionally, CFNE has received multiple donations from Equal Exchange's Charitable Contributions. These funds have been used for operations and the launching of the sister fund, Co-op Capital Fund.
Ashley: What exciting things is CFNE currently working on?
LJ: CFNE is always trying to come up with ways to help co-ops grow. They continue to make loans and develop ways for growing the cooperative economy in New England.
They have also been developing new financing "products" that include:
- the Cooperative Capital Fund, which provides longer term patient capital for co-operatives.
- members-directed loans that allow for individuals to invest in their food co-operative.
- co-op member opportunity loans that allow for worker-owners to purchase equity in their worker co-op or to obtain education in the cooperative field.
They are also supporting co-op networking with co-op to co-op initiatives like the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the production of a "shelf talker" material that shows consumers that certain products are cooperatively produced. (Look for "GO CO-OP" materials around your food co-op!)
Ashley: What have you gained from your work with CFNE?
LJ: Being the board president of CFNE forced me to stretch a considerable amount. I expanded my knowledge of financial statements, grew my ability to analyze business plans and relied heavily on my facilitation skills. My favorite element of the work was that while I was adding and sharpening my skills, I got to contribute to the Co-op Movement here in New England.
Ashley: If someone in the co-op world should remember one thing about CFNE, what is it?
LJ: CFNE has over 35 years of investing in food systems, supporting co-operatives, worker ownership, and community nonprofits, without one investor losing a penny.
Ashley: How might someone get involved with CFNE?
LJ: They can visit the CFNE website and check them out. But it could be much simpler than that. You can shop at your local co-ops, buy co-op products, just simply vote with your dollars. An even bigger commitment could be investing in CFNE, as well.
Ashley: Anything else you'd like to share with us?
LJ: CFNE is very proud of its relationship with Equal Exchange. Equal Exchange serves as an example of how a cooperative organization that CFNE helped finance early in its life can grow up to have such a huge impact on the cooperative community and then circled back to help us. CFNE is sincerely grateful that Equal Exchange remembers and has actually come back to help support the Cooperative Fund and its work.