Dennis Johnson: Proponent of Cooperative Capital and Development
Promoting a national vision for cross-sector cooperation, while holding tight to a grassroots emphasis on co-op development, is quite a balancing act. Dennis Johnson, a 2016 inductee into the Cooperative Hall of Fame, has built his career on creating alliances that allow cooperative solutions to take root and thrive.
Dennis has supported the creation of all kinds of cooperatives, particularly within the senior housing, finance and agricultural sectors. His impact has been far-reaching, from financing national cooperatives ventures through the St. Paul Bank for Cooperatives (now CoBank), to securing Congressional authorization and appropriations for the USDA Rural Co-op Development Grant program, promoting senior co-op housing development, and with Rod Nilsestuen assisting with the creation of Cooperative Development Services—which served as a model for the development of other cooperative development centers around the U.S.
Over the years, Dennis has maintained very strong connections to CDS as a long-time board member, board chair, and a lead partner in senior housing development.
Working for co-ops isn’t initially what Dennis set out to do, but cooperation was deeply rooted in his upbringing, and when he turned to it as a career choice, it ended up being the right fit. Dennis was born and raised in Rock Creek, MN in a rural farming family. Throughout his childhood, both his grandpa and father were involved in co-ops. He took it for granted that everyone worked for or served co-ops, and he thought he wanted to do something different. After graduating from college, he set out to be a teacher, but felt more passion for agriculture. Dennis knew he could be of use to his community by helping farmers find financing and a market for their products. Once he chose that path “it felt natural to work in co-ops,” he said.
Making a difference is what it’s all about for Dennis. He’s continually thinking of ways to connect, facilitate, fund and encourage cooperative ventures. When he retired from his CEO position at the bank, he did not rest on his laurels. Instead he spent the better part of the last 15 years to advocating for senior housing cooperatives. He got involved, he said, because there are over a million seniors in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, and only 10,000 live in cooperative housing. “There’s a great need for accessibility and affordability,” he said.
Dennis also thinks that consumer co-ops hold the most potential for new cooperative ventures today in housing, food and community development projects. “Historically it was agriculture, today there’s much more focus and need in non-ag areas, too.” He thinks organizations like CDS serve as a catalyst for that kind of co-op development. “What CDS has done in value-added and community development in recent years is tremendous,” he said.
Dennis had chosen to work behind the scenes to make life and business better for so many people and communities—one of the hallmarks of a great cooperator. His nomination and induction in the Cooperative Hall of Fame was a complete surprise, but once he got over the shock he savored the experience. “My whole family was there to see me participate in Hall of Fame activities. I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life. I even made my granddaughters proud.”