Spreading the co-operative spirit of Christmas

Christmas is coming and with it the usual rush to seasonal cheer. I’m mugging up my lines as an extra for the local Christmas Choir.

But there are some co-operatives for whom cheer and community seem to be year-long affairs, part of the way that they do business. Here are two very special ones.

Thrivent Financial is a non-profit mutual in the USA. With its roots in Lutheran congregations, Thrivent has opened out in recent years to all faith communities, both of which mean that it has extensive connections with churches across the USA and its financial reinvestment is geared to fit the life and needs of those involved at a local parish level.

One current initiative, now in its second full year of operating, is to offer a support package for members who are involved in local events. Any member can take advantage, for up to two events each over the course of a year. The package includes an events kit with banners, T-shirt and a pre-paid card good for spending $250 on the event, which needs to be done with a month of receipt. With an extraordinary level of take-up, Thrivent sponsored 110,000 local events last year. Along with this it distributed one million T shirts, with the slogan ‘Live generously’.


An independent economic study of the community impact of fraternal societies such as Thrivent in the USA suggests that they generate social capital valued at an average of $1.7 billion annually, or $8.6 billion total. These enormous contributions vastly outweigh the estimated $50 million costs of a federal tax exemption for fraternal societies, who are then required to return monies back to their community, which makes the fraternal model possible and produces a 76-to-1 return on the public investment.  The support of the tax code gives rise to immense benefits to society, thanks to the efforts of the members of fraternal benefit societies.

The Co-op Cuppa is an offer from the East of England Co-operative. 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.

Tea was perhaps always therefore the place to start when members of the East of England Co-operative looked to see how the business could support co-operation in the community. For a local community event, or for a programme of events, the co-operative now offers a free pack of 99 teabags. You can apply here.

In its first sixteen months of operation, over 415,000 cups of tea have been drunk in events run by 514 local good causes. Included in this were 75 dementia cafes or groups, connecting up to a wider programme run by the co-operative to support dementia awareness, including training all of its staff in stores (the business has recently been awarded the Alzheimer Society’s Dementia Friendly Organisation of the Year, as well as a Princess Royal Training Award).

This Winter, local night shelters and soup kitchens will be running on co-op cuppas from Norwich to Colchester. Hospices too have taken up the offer and charities have included them in Winter Warmer kits for the elderly. Coming up are a swathe of carol concerts, with 99 tea after all the singing is over. Overall, something like 60,000 tea bags have been requested in Norfolk, 210,000 in Suffolk and 90,000 in Essex.

The Co-op Cuppa programme has generated waves of media and social media coverage on the back of what community groups were doing. And the costs? The total annual direct spend on the programme amounted to no more than £10,000.

Of course, every business can be affected by Christmas, whether through trading, giving gifts for raffles, staff volunteering or corporate charitable giving. But it is a special kind of business that is owned by the communities they work in and that support those communities to do the things they want to do.

They are spreading the co-operative spirit of Christmas throughout the year.

One thought on “Spreading the co-operative spirit of Christmas

  1. The Thrivent Financial ‘Live Generously’ t-shirt caught my eye. What a tremendous initiative! And such a good way for cooperatives to build their community.

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