How do we understand the surge of community spirit in the UK?

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is reported to have said “Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honour his neighbour.

In that spirit, there is a great report out today from the Muslim Charities Forum, The Neighbours Next Door which tells the stories of just under two hundred Muslim charities and groups proving community support over the pandemic.

A similar story can no doubt be told of the local contribution of other faith communities and voluntary organisations.

At Pilotlight our members, drawn from the world of business, have been working with the charity Sport4Life since 2018, supporting it to develop and grow. The CEO and founder Tom Clarke-Forrest is wonderfully now a bursary Pilotlighter himself, helping to spread that support and guidance to other charities and social enterprises. This moving video talks to the work of Sport4Life with young people over the pandemic.

All this is a heartwarming reminder of the extent of community cooperation across the UK

A decade ago, I was part of a research team looking at neighbourliness. We concluded across the UK, there are at least twenty one million conversations taking place each day between neighbours. Fourteen million people drop round for a chat with their neighbour.

But… set against this, the UK is ranked as one of the more lonely countries in the world and it has been a tough time for those who are alone and feel alone.

How do we understand the surge of community spirit under COVID-19 in the UK?

The Neighbours Next Door report warns that “At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, there was an outpouring of compassion from the public with a desire to volunteer and serve their communities during this unprecedented time leading to many voluntary sector organisations having long volunteer waiting lists. However, as the lockdown eases, and individuals get back to work, the number of volunteers may fall despite the need to support the community not diminishing.”

Perhaps the conclusion is that we should respect but not idealise what can be done through the spirit of self help and mutual aid. Our sense of community can be inspired by our values or our faith, but still fall short. It may be that we are closer to the seventeenth century aphorism of the Welsh poet, George Herbert, who adds a cautionary note “Love your neighbour, yet pull not downe your hedge.

Children today on children yesterday – a charming short heritage video from South London

I have written before of my involvement as a trustee (treasurer) of a small community charity, the Merry Trust, founded by my friend, Jani Llewelyn, a nursery teacher in Deptford before she died.

One of the projects that Merry has been able to fund is on heritage and education for schools in the area, and this work has come up trumps.

This video is eight minutes of heart warming, charming stories told by the children of Year 5 at Deptford’s Tidemill Academy drawing on the archives of the local Ragged School, founded in the nineteenth century.

Thank you to Katharine Alston, from the local Bear Church, who unlocked the archives. You have brought the past to life for a new talented generation of Deptford’s young people.

Self-help and the women of Bootle – an extraordinary story of community action

The last time Bootle closed as a town was the air raids in the Second World War. With the docks harbouring the escort ships for the Atlantic convoys, the town was flattened by bombing, with only one in ten houses still standing by the end of the war. 

In terms of housing and poverty, the town today is classed as one of the most disadvantaged in the UK, yet it has some extraordinary strengths, one of which is some of the women of Bootle, formed into a remarkable community charity, the Venus Centre

As a small tile on a Zoom screen, I was observer a few days back for the kick-off session in which the Venus founder, Lorraine Webb, explained its work to the team formed by Pilotlight to support her and the team over a ten month structured programme of work.

Under the COVID-19 lockdown, the Venus Centre has kept the community active and engaged across the town with an armful of services to support local families on screen and on phone. With lockdown easing, it looks as if some face to face services at the Centre can now restart.

Lorraine co-founded the Venus Centre as a way to promote young women’s health. By training up local women, she could get health messages to women in a form that they could understand and trust. The myth that you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up died in Bootle later that year. 

She didn’t start the charity in order to start a charity; instead it was simply a way to do what she knew needed to be done.

Venus Charity | Empowering, promoting and supporting women, young ...

Founded in 1994, the idea of a centre was at the heart of what emerged, because listening to the women that came helped to shape their ideas of what services would work. They started in one place, moved after a fire, were hosted by the Sefton Women’s Advisory Network, and then moved again to rent three shop units, which they knocked together and renovated over three years using programmes to support apprentices in the building trade. 

In the aftermath of community opposition to its initial plans for ‘housing market renewal’, the local authority worked hard to rebuild relations, including recognising the Venus Centre with the offer of support for a new building that is now at the heart of Lorraine and the charity’s plans for the future.

The core programmes run by the Venus Centre focus on family support, housing and resettlement and mental health and well-being. It is a women’s organisation and proud to be so, but the support it offers is open to all. Over the lockdown, the Centre has run an emergency hostel in the area, which, as elsewhere, has proved to be an unexpected lifeline in the work to tackle the prevalence of rough sleeping. One man who has slept under a bridge for six years, reports Lorraine, now sleeps indoors (on the floor) and he is happy.

The Venus Centre is one of the small to medium sized charities that is looking to Pilotlight for support this year. As winners of a 2020 Weston Charity Award from the Garfield Weston Foundation, what they receive, free to access, is a structured programme of support from a team of business and charity leaders designed to build their confidence and professional skills around strategy. “I feel very lucky to have this support” says Lorraine. 

Pilotlight brings together the worlds of business (which pays for the service and gifts the time) and charity and creates a bridge for the common good. It works because of the quality of the programme. 

In a world in which traditionally good intentions were enough, Pilotlight has a proven impact. Independent evaluation shows that 94% of people participating with Pilotlight from business see an increase in their coaching skills while the charities that benefit currently see increases within two years on average of 36% in their reach and 40% in their income.

There is a new window of applications now open for charities and social enterprises that want to take part in other programmes run by Pilotlight. 

So please spread the word – follow Lorraine, follow the women of Bootle. 

Is the largest social enterprise for UK athletes a ‘fake non-profit’?

I have written over recent years on the trend for corporates and private enterprise to cloak themselves in the clothes of the third sector – fake non-profits I dubbed them.

The latest suspect I have come across is a private limited company, Inspired Through Sport. It looks inspiring – ‘the largest social enterprise for Great British athletes’. But countless recent Google Reviews allege that it has ended up not paying staff, schools or athletes – even if what may have been paid are director fees, expenses and travel.

It is genuinely not easy to bring value to different stakeholder groups, here athletes, schools and schoolchildren, and perhaps what started as a hopeful venture has become a cropper. Anyone can fail, but it is the terms of that failure which mark this one out as a possible fake non-profit.

The company has not filed accounts and has been fined by an employment tribunal, while the directors have opened up a new company ITS through which they are directing new business. The allegation seems to be to be that if Directors have received monies through the original venture, this money originated from schoolchildren and their families, as schools fundraised to bring in athletes as speakers plus were promised sports equipment from the funds, some of which have never materialised.

One of the curiosities of all this has been the use of the Social Enterprise UK logo, which promises that this is a “certified social enterprise”.

When I flagged this as a concern to Social Enterprise UK, the team were quick to respond, indicating that the venture was not now a member and had been told to withdraw use of the logo. So far, looking at the Inspired Through Sport website which remains live, that hasn’t happened.

The footnote is one of language and trust. There will always be social enterprises that succeed and ones that fail. Social enterprises that are fake non-profits, running what become in effect scams, are rare, albeit perhaps on the rise. In that context, is the term ‘certified social enterprise’ misleading to consumers and stakeholders? There is after all a genuine certification, with independent assurance, in the form of the Social Enterprise Mark.

Social Enterprise UK is a truly great champion for the sector and has done a huge amount to promote social enterprise. I am proud to have played a small part at the beginning, having co-written with Jonathan Bland and Baroness Glenys Thornton the original business plan for the organisation – then as the Social Enterprise Coalition. As far as I can see, the team today are taking this case seriously and had already triggered a review.

But… why use the word ‘certified’? If it doesn’t cost to join and it is pretty much your word as to whether you are a social enterprise on the forms, and you can then tell the world you are in fact certified, then there is a question: won’t there be more fake non-profits that take advantage of the efforts of everyone else?

Badges of co-operation

How would you tell the story of your work?

This was the question posed to me by Liz McIvor, manager at the Co-operative Heritage Trust, earlier this year when I told her I was leaving. The question stayed with me for some time, before I found an answer.

In modern work, there are endless documents and emails and I trust that the archivists of the future will be intelligent machines because I wouldn’t wish my inbox or my folders on anyone. But an answer did come to me, because it turns out that over ten or more years, I have unknowingly become a collector – of co-operative badges.

Having sorted my desk, emptied my bags, checked my pockets and dusted down my lapels, I have pulled together fifty seven badges from the UK and around the world that I have picked up over time. Here is the story of my ten plus years in the form of my ten favourite beautiful co-op badges…

  1. This badge was one I brought with me to Co-operatives UK when I arrived in Manchester in the Autumn of 2009. I had been one of the team that started the Fairtrade Mark, many years before (another story and one that I retold in an article for Co-op News). Early on, I liaised with the fair trade community and did the calculations to show that seventy five per cent of all fair trade at the time was from producer co-operatives.
  1. I wanted us to free up our thinking. Let’s see the word co-operative not just as a thing – a noun – but as who we can be – an adjective. This badge was produced by Co-operatives UK for the first Co-operatives Fortnight in 2010, an idea suggested by Chris Herries, a period designed to allow for promotion of the co-operative model over two weeks running up to the International Day of Cooperatives on the first Saturday in July.
  1. Co-operatives United was a programme of events in Manchester to mark the close of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. Over ten thousand people took part in a series of events, including the formal Co-operative Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). When I spoke, to give me confidence, I wore my dad’s socks. My highlight though was playing for an ICA football team against a youth side from the sports co-operative FC United of Manchester, at their ground. So co-operative, they allowed us eighteen players from all around the world to their eleven and gave us their goalkeeper, all of which contributed to a surprise 3-2 win for the ICA. I still have my ICA football shirt, donated by the Bulgarian Co-operative Union.
  1. I love a good rainbow, but it was noticeable to most people that the rainbow logo of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) adopted in 1925 suggested that we were a gay rights organisation. Fair enough, but there is more to co-ops too. Drawing on the earlier ideas of others, I proposed formally to the Board of the ICA that a new visual identity be developed, one that could work as a logo and as a brand that could be used by co-ops around the world. It was accepted and I oversaw the development and launch in 2013 of the International Co-operative Marque, with design by Calverts worker co-op and organisation behind the scenes by Nicola Huckerby.
  1. As an elected member of Cooperatives Europe, I had the privilege of visiting Finland a number of times and it is a country with an extraordinary co-operative reach. The saying is that the Americans had Rockefeller and Ford and Finland had the co-ops. This badge is a miniature replica of the SOK consumer co-op membership card, which is also a bank card, given to me by Professor Salme Näsi. I wrote about my first visit to Finland in 2014 in an article in the Guardian newspaper.
  1. In 2014, I visited the worker co-op SUMA, Europe’s largest equal pay employer, to give them the award of Co-operative of the Year. Along with me on the visit was the President of the Trades Union Congress, Mohammed Taj, and the General Secretary of the Bakers and Food Workers Union (BAFWU), Ronnie Draper. SUMA had had a branch of the union for thirty years and 80% of its members are union members. I swapped badges with Ronnie, so that he walked away with a co-op badge from Co-operatives UK.
  1. With co-ops, I have found you can only act fast if first you have talked slow. This is a badge I was given in 2014 to mark the formation of a new combined bilingual co-operative association in Canada. A lot of patient diplomacy went into the merger and it certainly helped to raise the national voice of the sector. I saw this when I visited for the annual Congress of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada in 2018, on Vancouver Island. [But as an aside, there is an eccentric side to all this diplomacy. The single most ridiculous conversation in the life of the co-operative movement has been whether or not to use a hyphen in the word cooperative (woops / haha – delete as appropriate). Note how the use or not of the hyphen in the word co-op on the badge is delicately sidestepped by the use of a maple leaf. How very, er… co-operative.]
  1. This is the logo of the Fair Tax Mark, an accreditation service for businesses on the challenge of tax transparency, formed as a society and backed first by co-operative societies that took up its offer. The initiative was championed by some inspiring people, including Richard Murphy, Paul Monaghan and the team at Ethical Consumer; at a time of austerity, tax was the number 1 public concern around business behaviour. In 2016, we did the research to show that the five largest UK co‑operatives paid 50% more corporate tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Starbucks combined…
  1. I was given this by Hugo Cabrera in 2018 when I visited Grafica Campichuelo, his workers print co-operative. The visit was alongside the 2018 International Co-operative Alliance General Assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hugo’s story was one of a business that had been occupied by workers and turned around when the owners had tried to close it. It was an inspiring story and, as so often, one I recorded at the time as a blog post.
  1. I love the classic clover leaf design of the logo of The Co-op Group, following its rebrand. I joined The Co-op Group as a teenager and have been proud to stand alongside the business as it has moved forward after the crisis of 2014/15, with the shock demutualisation of the Co-operative Bank. When I attended their 2019 Annual General Meeting, they were celebrating five successive years of like-for-like growth in food sales under the leadership of Chief Executive Steve Murrells. The record of social and environmental action by The Co-op Group is as long as your arm. As with so many co-operatives that I encountered over my ten plus years, being owned by your members means that you act for them and for their communities rather for the enrichment of a small number of institutional investors.

I have collected 57 badges that are in a bag to go to Liz and her team for the Co-operative Heritage Archive in Manchester. I will take them up when travel allows.

May the co-operative practice of sharing ownership and profits ever flourish, until one day, it becomes the norm.

And then perhaps, we will need no more badges…

The origins of mutual aid

I have a letter in the national press today, my last in the name of Co-operatives UK, reflecting on the current flowering of mutual aid in communities across the UK.

Previous waves of self help and mutual aid led to the formation of institutions so many of which have endured to today and indeed have also played a positive role in meeting needs at a time of crisis. My underlying question is this:

what new institutions will come out of today’s tech-enabled and hyperlocal mutual aid?

Because I touch on the origins of mutual aid, I expand on this a little here, drawing on my book, free to download, A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality.

It is always a good idea to reread Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin, setting aside where his data and opinions are out of date. But the roots go back far further than the publication of this great work at the dawn of the twentieth century.

As a formal model of organisation, mutual aid arguably predates the modern formal private and charitable sectors by a thousand years.

Some of the earliest records of mutuality are from the Roman Empire. One of the practices was a variety of groups of artisans organised into ‘collegia’: formal membership associations. One authority, in the late Empire years, was St. Augustine of Hippo, the Algerian and Roman philosopher. He looked to set the ground rules for how mutual trade and exchange should operate, through the concept of a ‘just price’.

The term collegia (the root of the modern word ‘college’ of course) translates from Latin as ‘joined together’. Across the Roman Empire, collegia might be arts troupes or they might be groups of silverworkers, rag dealers or woodsmen. Some were burial societies, supporting members at a time of financial cost as well as religious and cultural significance. We know of associations from inscriptions, papyri and the writings of contemporaries in the Hellenistic period from the fifth century BCE. But the terms used, the members involved and the purposes set were extraordinarily varied – the number of different associations listed over the period stands at 2,500 on some counts and that is only the ones we know of today.[i]

We can paint an evocative picture of collegia through the example of one case study, a stone’s throw from the walls of Rome, the statutes of which are preserved in inscriptions. The Collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia was founded in around 153 AD by a wealthy Roman woman named Salvia Marcellina.[ii] She endowed a building on the Appian Way, to commemorate her late husband and this served as a dining club for its members, and a burial society. With member subscriptions and an endowment, the college lent money to its members, using the interest to pay its expenses. The college itself was limited to sixty members. It admitted new members only when it needed to replace those who had died. As a member, you were guaranteed a burial, including all of the costs associated with a smooth passage to the after life – funeral rites at home, burials outside of the city, with a procession from one to the other.

The college had a President, the officers were curatores, or ‘caretakers’ and the body of regular members was termed the populus, ‘the people’.[iii] Just as later co-operatives and mutuals would come to be known in many countries as ‘societies’, we can sense that the ways in which collegia like this were set up were intended to echo a view on how the wider world should be structured.

The Collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia and its ilk were self organising associations, concerned with equity among members but not necessarily or typically egalitarian – whether they were formed for banquets by groups of aristocrats or indeed burials by groups of slaves.[iv] The sceptical views of Pliny the Younger in his letters might have held for many. As he put it, nothing could possibly be more “distressingly inequitable” than unflinching equality for all.[v] Just as seats in the theatres in Rome were organised by rank (in Augustan times), so the collegia, whether based on trades or cults, whether with members of military veterans or diners and drinkers, tended to operate with levels of status and rank. Some boasted an elaborate array of punishments for transgressions.[vi]

Beyond this, it is hard to generalise about the nature of the collegia. The nineteenth century German scholar Theodor Mommsen focused on collegia as burial societies, asserting that they were one of the few civil society organisations allowed to operate in Roman cities under the Emperors. In truth, first, burials were never universal across collegia and second, the relationship with the state was never so simple. Yes, there were crackdowns at times on civil organisation; Julius Caesar issued the Lex Iulia, which appears to have included a prohibition on voluntary associations. Yet there was a loophole in the same law for those that were formally approved, longstanding or set up in the name of public service. Jonathan Scott Perry cautions that the evidence from inscribed documents is that Roman associations were widespread and unrestricted in practice.

Mutuals do not leave fossil bones with DNA that can lead us to construct an evolutionary tree or paint a picture of diets and daily life aeons ago. They leave references, rules and, in more modern times, plenty of minute books. That evidence trail may be stronger, for the last one thousand years, in Europe but that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that formal co-operation was strongest there or strong only there.

Other regions had their own experience of formal or informal mutuality. One that I admire was the Ahi (‘brotherhood’ or ‘generous, open-handed’) movement in Anatolia, modern Turkey was started in the thirteenth century by Pir Ahi Evran-e Veli.

Ahi Evran was a master leather craftsman and scholar, born in Iran in 1169, travelling west at a young age to escape invasion by the Mongols. His vision of mutual aid, that spread throughout the region and lasted for centuries, was not one of a single community or even a single town. He envisaged a world of guilds, workers connected together and operating in a context of ethics and faith that could enable peaceful collaboration across the economy and society.

Sometimes, we have to look back to be able to move forward.

[i] Kobel, E, Dining with John, Brill, 2011

[ii] Donahue, J, The Roman Community at Table During the Principate, University of Michigan Press, 2004

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Schumacher, L, Slaves in Roman Society, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

[v] Pliny, Ep, 9. 5. 3 cited in Peachin, M, Introduction, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

[vii] Perry, J, The Roman Collegia, Brill, 2006

[vi] Peachin, M, Introduction, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

What is Pilotlight?

After three decades of working in a range of small but extraordinary non-profits, I am joining a social enterprise next month whose role is precisely to support those organisations. Its name is Pilotlight.

As CEO of the New Economics Foundation, I fell in love with the insight of ‘small is beautiful’ – a vital corrective to a mindset that big is best and so only growth matters. Instead you have to have the right scale for what you do; and for care and community, we should value the weave of small business and small charities.

As Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, I fell in love with the way that participation can unlock talent. Over time, the co-op sector has been an extraordinary business accelerator for learning and in particular for working class talent.

Pilotlight is a young charity that sells an innovative service to business, which is to help develop and fulfil their staff talent through programmes that set them to work to benefit leaders in the charity and social enterprise sector.

By matching the two, the charities benefit from outstanding support through carefully curated programmes starting from their needs and the businesses benefit from a widening of skills and a deepening of motivation for their staff team.

Those involved, the pilotlighters, become members of the organisation, building a community of purpose for social action.

Under the leadership of Gillian Murray, Pilotlight has broadened the programme and partnership offer around this innovative core. As the latest Impact Report sets out, one thousand charities and social enterprises have now benefited over time. Pilotlight has a rare and precious multiplier effect on civil society.

The context for the work of Pilotlight could not be more compelling. In the crisis of the pandemic, the social sector, as Andy Haldane has put it, has proved itself to be the “institutional immune system” at times of risk.

And yet, as the #nevermoreneeded, #SaveourSocEnts campaigns and the Small Charities Coalition have shown, the sector faces collapsing resources at precisely the same time as there are rocketing needs.

Pilotlight itself has continued its work, supporting forty two charities over the lockdown period.

The challenge ahead for the nation is whether we can learn from the best of what we have seen in the crisis, to build back better.

What we need is nothing less than an upgraded model of wealth creation in which we decide to:

1. value what sustains us in an era of complexity and multiple risk

2. affirm new forms of co-operation and partnership to nurture that and

3. step up action to limit our wider system risks around public health and the natural environment.

And what else?

Tea by numbers – the quirky story of 99 and 1336 co-operative teas

Perhaps it is me, but in the lockdown, I am drinking more tea. So it is neat to see that today is National Tea Day.

In terms of tea and human rights, there are two numbers which have special stories behind them.

99 Tea is one of the most iconic of brands sold in Co-op food stores, which is ironic as it was never intended to be a brand. I believe that the number 99 was chosen, along with the slogan of ‘prescription tea’ as a drink widely assumed to be healthy, because it was simply the next number in the series of own brand products launched by the Co-operative Wholesale Society. It came after product 98, but 99 has stuck – and the non-brand has become a brand.

In fact, the Co-operate Wholesale Society itself, now a key part of today’s Co-op Group, started at a tea party in a barn at Lowbands Farm, Jumbo, Middleton, on August 12th 1860. Tea seems to oil the wheels of co-operation.

And in 2008, 99 tea became fully fairtrade, as the Co-op was the first retailer to convert all of its hot drinks own brand range to fairtrade.

I picked up another tea number when I visited Diana Dovgan from the European worker co-operative network CECOP in January. This is 1336 from France and it also has a fascinating back story.

1336 is natural and organic Darjeeling tea, made in Gémenos, near Marseille, by around 60 workers who formed the SCOP TI cooperative when the Fralib factory, making Lipton tea, was closed down. 1336 is the number of days (3 years and 241 days) that it took between the factory closing and the co-operative taking over the building to start afresh.

The commitment of the cooperative is to produce a wide range of teas and infusions, building organic supply chains with an emphasis on specialist local producers, to cut the carbon footprint.

Enjoy your cuppa today.

What has Italy got right?

At a time of heartache, it is still possible and natural to be heartened by those around us. Italy has been at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the responses I hear from my calls and contact with co-operators there add up to a moving and meaningful story to share.

Co-operation is written into the constitution of Italy. Article 45 of the Constitution of 1948 states specifically that the Republic recognises the benefits of co-operatives operating for mutual benefit, free from private speculation. It goes on to prescribe that Italian law should assist and promote the development of co-ops and ensure their integrity.

It is not the only country to write co-ops into the national constitution, although it is less common in Europe. Ifigeneia Douvitsa teaches in the School of Law at Democritus University of Thrace, Greece. She has trawled through constitutions worldwide and concludes that around 1 out of 3 national constitutions internationally refer explicitly to co-ops.

(The first, by the way, in the research she has sent me was the 1917 constitution of Mexico, a product of the 1910 revolution and a beacon of radical intent, including social and economic rights and the protection of labour rights and working conditions.)

In Italy around ten per cent of the economy (gross domestic product) is organised through co-operatives, with around eleven per cent of the workforce employed by co-ops, including many large-scale worker co-ops of course.

The response of co-ops in Italy to the health, social and economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to draw on their values, for sure, but also to find ways to co-operate between co-operatives.

The retail co-ops, for example, have seen revenues increase as essential services. Yes, they have faced increased costs too, but their decision was to gift the proceeds, millions of euros, in support of Italian public hospitals and community co-operatives that are playing a crucial role in supporting local communities.

In Lombardy, one of the regions worst affected, my friend Stefania Marcone tells me that through her national co-operative alliance, Legacoop (working alongside Confcooperative and AGCI) there is support for worker co-ops of cleaners switching to working in hospitals, social co-operatives delivering food and taxi co-operatives providing free transport for people who are over 65.

With support from the wider sector, twelve co-ops have come together to start production of 400,000 face masks per day, with a design I am told is innovative in being able to be re-used up to 100 times. Design of course is another strong sector for Italian co-ops in pre-crisis times, bringing together small firms and connecting to financial co-operatives to be able to compete at an international level.

In small villages, community co-operatives like the “Biccari” community cooperative, in the province of Foggia have turned on a sixpence to provide a local home delivery service for those who need it.

This solidarity is international too. The Bulgarian retail co-operatives were able to respond to a national shortage of disinfectants and cleaning detergents, because Coop Italy responded with deliveries, despite themselves being in the most critical situation with challenging and complex logistics.

And the international solidarity comes back too, like a boomerang. The outstanding freelancer co-op SMART, who I have written about before in supporting members in crisis, has launched a Plan Corona to sustain freelancers who have lost their jobs due to the virus. Starting in Belgium and France, it is now being extended to Italy.

Of course there are other international examples that are outstanding in terms of co-operative action – as no doubt can be found in other sectors, of civil society, social enterprise and wider corporate action. After all, this is not a competition. Co-ops don’t claim to be better than others on values – they simply claim to live up to their values and so often when I look, I find that to be true.

Here are examples that I have come across that I appreciate:

  • French co-operative banks around Paris have opened up lines of credit worth €100 million for hospitals and healthcare centres.
  • German co-operative banks have led on increasing the limit for contactless payment for customers to 50 euros – practical and helpful.
  • In Spain, Lionel Messi helped to lead a 70% pay cut by players at FC Barcelona, the iconic football co-op, in order to ensure that lower-paid workers receive full pay and protection from being laid off.
  • Desjardins in Canada has announced a discount for car insurance customers who are driving less in a lock-down.
  • Irish credit unions have remained open when bank branches have closed, offering new emergency loans.
  • Co-op insurers in Sweden have placed investments of US$235 million in new bonds to finance public health actions not just in the Baltic region but worldwide. Ylva Wessén, CEO, promises that “Folksam Group is actively seeking investment opportunities that alleviate the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus.” 

In the UK, Nick Crofts, President of the Co-op Group has commented that:

“co-ops have consistently set an example that other businesses and even the Government have subsequently followed. It was Co-op Food stores that were the first to promise help to food banks struggling because of panic buying. Co-op Academies were the first to announce that no child should go hungry because schools were closed.

In Wales, co-op taxi drivers are offering free rides to key workers. And right here in Liverpool a co-op bakery is baking fresh bread for food banks and delivering pies to ambulance workers. I know that co-operators are up to this challenge and that our co-operative movement anchored in the communities that we serve will always back those who need it most.”

You can read about new examples here and abroad, including recent posts on USA, India and Brazil via Co-op News, in Europe from Co-ops Europe and more widely from the ILO. Co-ops UK is collecting evidence from our members on the impact and the response too so it is worth signing up to receive our newsletter too, or checking out our latest specialist advice.

In Italy, as the prospects of loosening lock-down brighten, the cultural co-ops across the country are promising a programme of public engagement, to rebuild the country.

I had the opportunity to meet the President of Legacoop, Mauro Lusetti, on a brilliantly informative trip to Bologna two years ago. The example he has set in Italy has been immense. This is how he puts it – what Italy has got right:

“We are normal people, who try every day with passion, courage and competence to do their duty, to do their job.

We are women and men cooperators who are in places of suffering alongside doctors and nurses, to keep hospitals clean, and to operate, from kitchens to thermal power plants. We are women and men who try to make essential services work in warehouses in the streets, in supermarkets, in offices; we are the ones who in social cooperation try in every way to keep assistance alive for all the people who were fragile before the Coronavirus and today they are even more so.

Continuing to be women and men cooperators , asking to continue working and being able to do so in safety is for us the only way we know of thinking about our future and that of our community.

The infection will end and as we work every day we try to imagine how to face the world that will come, so that no sacrifice has been in vain.”