Voluntary or Co-operative? Comparing the national bodies, NCVO and Co-operatives UK

I have just finished reading a history of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) by Justin Davis Smith. I picked the book up in May when facilitating a strategy session at NCVO for voluntary sector leaders.

When I joined the charity Pilotlight in 2020, one of my first steps was for us to join NCVO as a member. I have to say it wasn’t an obvious step. NCVO itself was on its knees, with close to zero influence on government and deep question marks over its own integrity, after internal incidents of bullying and of racism.

But the voluntary sector needs an effective voice, and to help make that happen, you have to show up. For a membership body, times of crisis are also a test of whether people care enough and are committed enough for it to come through. Even if it takes time, there lies the hope of renewal. 

The same holds true for associations in other sectors. Having worked at one, Co-operatives UK, I am intrigued to compare the experience of the two organisations over time.

I have written before on what charities can learn from co-operatives and vice versa. This blog is on what we can learn about their national bodies.

The association of co-operatives is older, by fifty years. It was on Monday, May 31st, 1869, at 11am when Tom Hughes MP rose in his chair in the theatre of the Royal Society of Arts in London to inaugurate the Co-operative Congress. There a resolution was adopted “the time has come for closer union or confederation of the co-operative societies of this country for common purposes and for a propaganda for extending the co-operative system to agriculture and other districts where at present it is not in operation.”

What to call the new association? The great co-operator, George Jacob Holyoake had warned that “a long name is a social calamity. ‘The British Association for the Advancement of Science’ has eight words in it. Many of its best members have left it, worn out by the exertion in writing the name.” It took a few years for a name to evolve, the Co-operative Union. As with NCVO, the name would alter over the years to follow.

The association of voluntary action started life in 1919 as the National Council of Social Service. It had support from a number of national charitable bodies, but the practical catalyst was a bequest from Edward Birchall, active in voluntary service before the Great War and killed in the course of it.

For the co-operatives, restricted to consumer retail co-ops, despite the breadth of original ambition, the business model was straightforward. The members were successful local trading entities and they paid a subscription which covered the costs of the central body. From the same members also came the revenue for the two other linked and powerful federal bodies established to serve the sector, the Co-operative Retail Society and Co-operative Wholesale Society.

For voluntary action, the business model for a central body was no less of a challenge than for each of its members to find funds. As with its members, there were constant appeals and in time the challenge led NCVO towards some enterprising solutions, including revenue support from the work of the Charities Aid Foundation – as well as finance from time to time from the state, typically for running national programmes of action on the ills of the day.

The relationship with the state has been a complex one for the voluntary sector, with a moving boundary over time between voluntary and statutory action. From the start, the question of independence has been a cause for debate. There have been strident critiques of where NCVO has engaged with government programmes, such as around unemployment in the 1930s. But then at other times, the organisation is loud and proud in standing up against state policy, such as the lobbying over recent years around efforts to gag charities from lobbying and campaigning. 

You might think that the self-help ethos of the co-operative sector would stress independence from the state even more. But in fact, the relationship was more complex, as it was more partisan. For most of the twentieth century, Co-operatives UK was in effect formally and constitutionally aligned to the Labour Party through the mechanism of its own political party, the Co-operative Party, founded after the First World War in frustration with government restrictions on co-operative trade.

The character of the co-operative movement was working class and socialist, albeit with vocal support from others. NCVO in contrast could happily be characterised as establishment. Even so, there was an overlap. As Davis-Smith argues “several of the Council’s early champions and most influential thinkers, including Adams, Lindsay and Barker came from this liberal or left-leaning tradition.”

Both created space for the talents of outstanding women. Grace Hadow, for example, from 1920 inspired the most successful chapter of NCVO’s early years in the form of rural community action. In the years running up to the Second World War, the community councils that she championed had supported the building of 1,200 village halls, covering around one in every twelve villages in England.

Margaret Llewellyn Davies, from 1889, was a legendary and tireless General Secretary of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, perhaps the most extraordinary and influential ‘voluntary organisation’ of its day. The Co-operative Women’s Guild was a mass movement, voluntary in nature but conceived within the co-operative sector, supported by it and a voice and force for working class women, in terms of education, empowerment and advocacy.

The clear, leftist politics of the co-operative sector inevitably meant that its fate was caught up in the wider ideological battles of the twentieth century. The sector was a direct target for attack by fascists on the continent in the 1930s. In the wake of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, for example, co-op shops were firebombed. Hamburg had 163 co-op shops with their windows smashed. In 1933, stormtroopers were placed outside of co-op shops. All co-op ‘propaganda’ was banned. Nazi ‘führers’ were placed onto all executive committees. Between 1935 and 1941, there was a compulsory liquidation of the movement. Adolf Hitler was given a birthday gift of 1 million Reichsmarks of confiscated co-op funds. Co-operatives UK’s general secretary R. A. Palmer, my predecessor in role, was placed on Hitler’s death list if the UK was invaded.

I have not found the right data to give an exact comparison of the size of each sector, including in volunteer roles, such as on committees, around this time. But in formal economic terms, it appears that for a long time in the UK, the co-operative sector was far larger than the voluntary sector. In the 1950s, there were around 30,000 co-operative shops and 250 factories. By contrast, even noting ‘the growth of a salaried bureaucracy’ in a 1937 report, the think tank Political and Economic Planning cites Census figures of around 10,000 employees working in voluntary organisations.

Both, though drew from a rich and long culture of associational life. One estimate I found in writing my own book, A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality, is that in the eighteenth century, there were a remarkable 25,000 clubs and societies meeting in the English-speaking world. These ranged from social clubs and arts societies through to debating clubs, book societies, alumni, freemasons, horticultural societies, music societies, sports clubs, professional associations, philanthropic and political societies, religious bodies, scientific and learning societies…

The subtitle that Justin Davis Smith, who is now the course director of the Charities Masters programme at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Bayes Business School, gives to his history of NCVO is “idealists and realists”. The same combination would ring true of co-operative action at the national level. The idealists saw in co-ops a way of organising society anew. The realists saw them as a practical way to meet needs. There are tensions as well as synergies in the mix of the two.

Idealism and realism came together from the start in the co-operative sector with a strong focus on education. Well before universal education, this helped to make the movement a genuine accelerator for working class talent. This included a recognition that running a co-op needed a distinctive set of skills. In contrast, it took a long time for the same focus on skills to arrive with the same emphasis at NCVO, with the establishment of a national training programme for staff in voluntary organisations only in 1997.

Ironically, by then, co-operative education had lost its own way – some retail societies even refused to appoint graduates as managers out of preference for talent from the shop floor. Poorly managed, poorly governed, one by one the weaker societies failed, using mergers not so much as a route to scale but as a way to muddle through.

The triumph of idealists and realists at NCVO as I read it, is in the proud track record that the organisation has had of incubating and advancing new voluntary sector bodies. The list of organisations that has been cradled by NCVO, some for very long periods of time, is astonishing. It includes Age UK, BOND, Charities Aid Foundation, Citizens Advice, CPRE, National Children’s Bureau, Neighbourhood Energy Action, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Waste Watch and the Youth Hostels Association.

By contrast, both with NCVO and with some other national bodies such as Pellervo in Finland, which played a catalytic role in creating new co-operatives at least early on, Co-operatives UK appears passive and insular over time, as if defending co-operative space rather than enlarging it through fostering innovation.

But leading your members is not an easy formula and in both cases, the associations developed a love of Commissions as a way to look forward. Every few decades resource-hungry Commissions, chaired by the right big name, would be asked to chart ways forward for each sector. For the voluntary sector, this included the Wolfenden Commission, the Deakin Commission and the more recent Inquiry led by Julia Unwin. For the co-operative sector, it included the Gaitskell Commission, the Monks Report and the Myners Review.

At times, each association has been left behind by new practices and new radicals in the sector. The campaigning charities of Shelter and Child Poverty Action Group reinvented voluntary action in the 1960s, with NCVO struggling to keep up. The disabled persons movement looked to replace charity sector paternalism with participation. The worker co-ops formed in the 1970s, forerunners and pioneers of so much participatory self-management in the workplace today, also found no home and no recognition in the wider co-op sector for decades.

Each sector too struggles to keep up with a changing society. While both can claim a strong track record in recent years of leadership by women, when it comes to race and wider diversity, both sectors risk falling behind. Having fallen so short on this, NCVO has won support for its remedies and plans going forward.

And yet overall, by encouraging and nurturing voluntary and co-operative action over time, both associations have left a profound mark on the world. As Raymond Williams argued, the ways that so-called ordinary people have had of getting together to make a difference are cultural achievements, to be taken as seriously as cultural products as paintings, plays and books.

The difference that has been made over time to individuals and communities through voluntary and co-operative action is incalculable. As Julia Unwin CBE puts it, ever eloquently, “reading this excellent history, I was struck time and again by the continued power of civil society to challenge and disrupt other sources of power, to mobilise money and effort to solve major social problems.”

There is not yet a history of Co-operatives UK over its full 150 years (I think 100 was the last one) to put alongside my copy of ‘100 Years of NCVO and Voluntary Action’ by Justin Davis Smith. It would not be a best seller. But there is value in setting the challenges that currently face both sectors in a historical context.

As Sarah Vibert, the energetic and collaborative new CEO of NCVO, puts it to me – “what will be the next chapter that we can write?”

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