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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Like two different football clubs in one great city, for years charities and co-operatives would have relatively little to do with each other.
Can we learn from each other?
For the charity sector, co-ops are business clubs focused on private gain – values-based, open and entrepreneurial. That is seen as in contrast with a wider public purpose – indeed charity law tends to test public benefit negatively, through the absence of private benefit.
For the co-operative sector, philanthropy is about the public works of private people – generous with their time and money, prosperous, often establishment. That is seen as in contrast with the working class roots of the self-help movement – participatory and emerging out of need.
Each probably think the other is in some way the status quo – charities representing a more traditional, paternalistic approach to service delivery, co-operatives being part of markets that still leave people in need.
In reality, each has always aimed higher, at transforming society through values.
Close your eyes and image you are in society 100 years ago. Open your eyes and you would find little democracy, few employment rights, no votes for women and widespread racism. These most significant changes to our lives have been led by civil society, both charitable and co-operative. Politics rides and shapes the waves. But it rarely, in terms of state action, changes the tide. At our best, we both do that.
I have been involved in both these parts of civil society all my life. I work at Co-ops UK now and in July, I will take up a new role as CEO of Pilotlight, a social enterprise that provides support for small charities in partnership with business.
At our best, we are the free organisation of individuals around issues of need and of passion. This is what generates and regenerates the values that holds society together and takes it forward. When Harvey Weinstein describes himself as a dinosaur, there is an underlying truth. Technology changes, fashions change and you have to keep up. But values change, if you don’t fit, you will be found out.
I joined as an individual member of The Co-op when I left school. I was elected to the board of a national charity when I was twenty three.
In the 1990s, when I was Chief Executive of the charity, the New Economics Foundation, we launched a programme called Values-Based Organisation. Led by Simon Zadek, a profound thinker, the challenge as we saw it was that the reference points for learning in civil society were the wrong ones. Management thinking at the time was all and only about business structure and business strategy in the private sector.
Interestingly, one of the tools we helped to develop through this programme – social auditing – became in time part of triple bottom line accounting, reimported as learning into the world of business through the lens of corporate social responsibility.
So, where are the current intersections and opportunities for co-ops and charities to learn from each other?
Intersection 1: Open Membership
Co-operatives are all about membership. Co-ops are businesses owned by those involved in the business, called members to distinguish them from the more distant investors that own shareholder companies.
Co-ops themselves can be formed under any corporate form, so it is not unlike the diverse legal mix open to charities. You just have to set the articles or rules for open membership, in line with international co-operative principles.
A huge swathe of charities too are based on membership. In the disability field, over many years, membership has been a practical tool in the move away from a tradition of paternalism, acting ‘for’ people with disabilities, to a culture of participation, in which action is led by people with disabilities.
In England and Wales, the Charity Commission estimates that are around 80,000 charities that have a membership structure. There will be uncounted thousands more in the low-flying heroes of the UK’s community sector, often unincorporated associations where participation is based on a presumption of equality. Think too of churches, trade unions, sports clubs, building societies and membership associations…
So, how many members of this form are there in the UK?
My estimate has been a minimum of 91 million members: more members than people in the UK, because enough of us are members many times over. But still, this is a dramatic number. It is ten times the number of individual shareholders in the UK. Can we imagine the television news, where member ups and downs were treated with the same profile and respect as stocks and shares?
But it varies, of course. There are many forms of association. Some are one-way models only. Having a loyalty card for a coffee chain gives you no voice. Being a friend of a museum gives you no vote.
Good membership is a two-way relationship between an individual and an institution, with purpose at its heart (see for example research of the New Citizenship Project).
But membership is changing:
Grassroots, participatory membership has been pushed out by a shift towards consolidation in the charity sector. Scale can erode membership as norms of expertise and professionalism override those of participation and accountability.
Conversely, there has been a rise in membership models over the last twenty years around key public services in the cause of ‘co-production’ – mental health trusts are a rather good example, acute health trusts a rather poor one.
What membership can do well is to answer the question ‘who are you accountable to?’.
For housing associations for example, the answer to this accountability test has never been sure and simple. It is a successful field but a world to itself, never quite sure whether its reference points are to charity, to co-operatives or to business. Social housing has grown to scale, but rarely has it been a confident voice for its tenants, let alone a platform for their self-organising.
The accountability test is also one that charities with no members to speak of can also struggle with. At its heart, perhaps, this is a tension between stakeholder models, where accountability comes through participation, and wider causes, where no-one can fully represent the purpose at hand. If your concerns go beyond people, for example – faith, the natural environment, other species – then accountability to people may never be enough.
Acting in trust without the complexities of wider accountability (beyond law and regulation that is) can be a way to entrench an enduring purpose over time. But I suspect that it can be harder to ensure that there is periodic renewal.
Charity is associated in the public mind with the call for new money. Yet there are billions of pounds of charitable assets that lie dead and dormant rather than being used to challenge and change society: beautiful paintings; wonderful halls in city centres; legacy foundations administered by banks and accountants. I am told that one penny in every pound traded on the stock exchange is on behalf of the charitable sector.
Yet of course, when it comes to accountability, mutual membership – particularly passive, mass consumer membership – doesn’t always do better. The old saying about building society managers was that their job was easy – borrow at 1 per cent, lend at 2 and be at golf by 3. This was before the shock of demutualisation…
The challenge of accountability and renewal is why governance matters.
Intersection 2: Participatory Governance
In both the charity and co-operative sectors, there have been high profile governance failures and scandals. And there are similar efforts in both to drive up quality.
Co-ops UK hosts a Co-operative Governance Expert Reference Panel. We operate a governance code updated from the start of this year and produce a range of governance support tools, from how to design democratic process where you need Boards with a balance of expertise, gender equality, work on conflict, values and culture, training and development as well as a range of templates for the use of Boards.
Our view of good governance is summarised in a Co-operative Governance Wheel that I helped to introduce. It is a one page reference point for good practice.
One of the great innovations in the co-op sector recent years, thanks in part to solicitors such as Anthony Collins, has been the development of a robust model of what we might call a ‘multi-stakeholder’ governance. If you are a worker co-operative, what about the customers? If you are customer-owned co-op, what about the workers? The multi-stakeholder model, still one member, one vote but within weighted constituencies, operates as a 360 degree co-operative.
In Wales, one of the leading social care charities, Cartrefi Cymru, has converted to a multi-stakeholder charitable co-op, because giving a voice to users, people with learning disabilities, carers and to staff can give them back their dignity. As Adrian Roper, Chief Executive of Cartrefi Cymru says, decrying the marketisation of care based on competition and a race to the bottom:
“if you feel that behaving like rats in a sack is a deeply inappropriate and resource-wasting way for social care providers to act, and you see no evidence that charitable status is any guard against rat-like behaviour, then co-operative principle 6 (co-operation amongst co-operatives) calls to your soul.”
In Italy, this model – multi-stakeholder social co-operatives providing care, health and employment services – has grown from 650 in 1985 to seven thousand today, with 244,000 staff and 35,000 volunteers.
Even so, where you have the self-selecting governance model of many charities – trustees of today choose the trustees of tomorrow – that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily cut off from wider stakeholders. LSE Professor Howard Glennister once suggested that the distinctive nature of voluntary organisations is their ambiguity – meaning that people can play different roles, including as trustees.
Naturally, this includes volunteers. In the most professionalised charities, the trustees are the only true volunteers left. But more widely, as some excellent recent NCVO research shows, volunteering still plays a foundational role in the participatory life of the nation. Seven in ten people have volunteered at some point in their lives.
Combining voluntary and paid efforts is an art and some, like the National Trust, do it brilliantly. At the intersection of co-ops and charities is the Plunkett Foundation. This is a specialist charity, 100 years old this year, that supports rural co-ops. Typically, these combine paid and volunteer staff in the context of a commercial business, with around 800,000 volunteer hours each year.
There are close to 350 community shops across the UK, supported by Plunkett, serving 1,400 remote rural communities. The long-run survival rate for these – part of a wider array of over 9,000 community businesses according to Power to Change – is outstanding given that all but a few were shops threatened with outright closure when local people took them on. After thirty years, only five per cent are not still running today.
Part of that success can be put down to the commitment of those involved, which is not just their time but also their money.
Intersection 3: Social Investment
Alongside membership and governance, the third area of intersection between charities and co-operatives is money. Here, the point of learning is not about traditional forms of giving but new ones, blending the motivation of donors and investors in a genuine form of social investment.
Here the community benefit society model has been a ‘game changer’ in that it is a model that encourages communities of people to come together to support charitable projects, through their time and fiscal investment, on a democratic one-member one vote basis. This uses traditional co-operative models of equity capital raising from members in a new setting, called ‘community shares’. Over the last decade, around 150,000 people have co-invested over £150 million in over 500 community businesses through this approach.
Equity like this is what most social ventures need – patient over time, asset-locked equity capital that can be crowd-funded from your supporters. It is not a pushing of expensive short-term debt, which is sadly what a fair amount of social investment passes for.
As a member, you don’t see capital gains and your money is at risk, but you can be paid interest on your investment and you benefit as a member from the success of the society – whether it is Equal Care Co-op, developing social care solutions, or Awel Aman Tawe, spreading solar power across Wales.
Creating or converting to a charitable community benefit society is becoming a real choice for a wide range of initiatives including local examples here where I work in Manchester: Projekts MCR, Ancoats Dispensary and Stretford Public Hall.
Conclusion – learning fast
Civil society is a big values-based tent and within it, there is ample scope to work with each other and scope to learn from each other. Our core traditions still stand apart from the dominant ideologies both of state-led and of market-led power. So I suggest that:
Charities can learn from the best of co-operatives how to make a virtue of accountability via open membership.
Co-operatives can learn from the best of charities how to make a virtue of purpose via open participation.
The best of both are champions of an increased voice for users, communities, workers and volunteers.
More widely, we have both something to teach the wider world of business, as well as something to learn.
And this is our shared condition. In a world of need, risk and opportunity, we all have to learn fast if we are to succeed.