A model of how to be authentic as a non-profit: values, purpose and the work of the Foster Care Co-operative

I had the pleasure recently to visit the Foster Care Co-operative, whose head office is based in Malvern, and which is a vibrant and successful non-profit brimming with purpose and values.


The co-op was set up in 1999 by Laurie Gregory after 30 years working with local authorities as a senior social worker and finishing as a Deputy Director of Children’s Services. Over that time, he also had personal experience of fostering, looking after a child with disabilities for 13 years. He saw the need to offer an alternative to private and venture capital funded agencies as foster care was increasingly outsourced to the market.

“I instinctively did not wish to start a ‘for profit’ company and, after meetings with my Chamber of Commerce and invaluable advice from Co-operatives UK, I chose the model of a multi-stakeholder co-op” he explained. “We have grown slowly by bringing new people to fostering.”


The staff are unionised with the GMB, and it is a stable and happy team; it was a pleasure to meet. There is a sense of dignity across the work, in the central team, across the foster carers and in their contact with the children who are looked after.

More widely, foster care is in difficult times. The contracting model of the outsourced market focuses less on the issue – the development of young people – and more on the management of the issue. With pressures on budgets, one of the challenges that commissioners face is matching cost and quality. The shift to look for the lowest cost, scoring less for quality can then generate other costs and unintended consequences, including worse outcomes for looked after children (an added challenge is the tendency of local authority commissioners to take an annualised view of budgets rather than look further out, planning more effectively over the years that a child might be with a foster carer).

“I have been to meetings where commissioners talk of unit costs, or annual unit costs. Call them children please, I say” comments the co-op’s Director, Ian Brazier.

In the current market, with a cut down model, national agencies are dominant – structured and financed through loans via Luxembourg to cut taxes, with taxable profits lost in the repayment of loans to the same owners. It was to understand the costs of a quality service that has been at the heart of a recent government stocktake of fostering (in England) – the Foster Care Co-operative was one of a handful of agencies to share data on an open book basis, to help them do that.

The co-op has contracts with 54 local authorities, but it refuses to bid for contracts that are set up to deliver a quality that is lower than the values of the co-op would countenance.


An example is the dedicated resource the coop employs to support foster carers with education and schooling for the children. One young person said: “The support my brother received from our carers has resulted in him going to university. After visiting him there, I think going to university is something I would like to experience too.”

The two outstanding indicators of the co-op’s success are the length of time spent with a carer and the outcomes in terms of what children go on to do when they reach adulthood. The average for a placement nationally is just four to six months. With the Foster Care Co-operative, the average is three and a half years. And every child that has left the co-op in recent years has gone on into work or education.

While foster care has to be seen as a later stage of support for children, stepping in where families can’t cope, the power of co-operation still makes a difference. The co-op is collaborating with other non-profits in the sector, working on the basis of shared values, and has launched a successful training programme in a joint venture with increasing take-up, to spread good practice. It is also piloting, with the local university, a programme to bring in foster carers with disabilities into the sector – a great potential example of asset-based social care.

The Foster Care Co-operative is an authentic non-profit, led by values and shaped by the participation of those involved across what is a vital service for young people in need.


Fake Non-Profits (2)

A fake non-profit is a corporate body whose purpose beyond being non-profit is to enable other businesses to make profits.

The underlying practice is not new. It uses models of transfer pricing questioned by critics of multinational companies since the 1970s (setting exchanges between different bodies in an artificial way in order to move money where it is needed) and it is close to the tax shelters exposed in more recent years by campaigners and transparency rules which aim to show who controls the entity. But the practice is on the rise, thanks to the combination of public sector outsourcing and the extraordinary pressures on budgets that today’s public sector faces.

In the wake of the collapse of Carillion, I pointed in a blog in February 2018 to that company’s use of fake non-profits – for example around the provision of library services.


Carillion’s Values: a beautiful diagram but also an illustration of a company that did the very opposite of what it said it stood for.

That triggered exchanges with practitioners in many a field, from academy schools to utility providers.

Professor David Hall, Director of the Public Services International Research Unit  at the University of Greenwich pointed me to non-profit partnerships developed by water multinationals, in Grenoble in France and Bogota in Colombia, which are run on a 50:50 basis with local authorities.

The running of the service is outsourced to a subsidiary of the utility, and the partnership slips into making regular losses, which are shared 50:50 with the council, so that public money is poured in year on year to cover half of the ‘losses’. Meanwhile, following the money, a substantial profit is made by the subsidiary, all of which goes back to the parent company, more than offsetting their share of losses on the joint venture. “I think both of them show that there are systematic strategies adopted by these companies, not just one-offs” he commented to me.

In the UK, one service where the use of non-profits is most in question appears to be leisure services.

Close to where we are based, at Manchester City Council for example, there is a decision out on leisure services – with two finalists named, one a longstanding co-operative social enterprise, GLL – also known as Better – (and a member of Co-operatives UK, for disclosure), and the second a company called SLM, which has taken up the non-profit model as part of a wider private sector bid.

Practice in the sports and leisure service sector is coming under scrutiny. Sport is a major sector in economic terms, employing close to half a million people and with something like 180,000 non-profit clubs across the UK. In leisure services, there has been a strong tradition over the last two decades of social enterprises, leisure trusts, looking at the social value that can be created in partnership through sport.

This is what the new private sector contracting model looks as if it might aim to subvert. I understand that SLM is one of the private sector leisure operators that SPORTA, the network of leisure trusts, is asking for more transparency on – in the context of the inquiry into Carillion and the outsourcing market by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

There is a vital principle at stake here, which is the integrity and value of genuine social enterprises, that put social purpose first.

To tackle the rise of fake non-profits in any sector, we need two system changes.

The first is greater transparency around tax, for example through the use of the Fair Tax Mark. This was pioneered first by co-operatives, and it has been taken up by a number of investor-owned companies such as Scottish and Southern (SSE), who have seen it as a way of demonstrating that they put back into society through taxes, rather than take from society by avoiding them.

The second is a more effective system of registration around exempt charities. The official policy aim, set out in legislation over a decade ago, has been for the Charity Commission to monitor these, but the integration needed to achieve this has been slow.

Why these two? Transparency on tax ought to be a sine qua non of public sector or socially responsible procurement, alongside the wider story on social value through commissioning. The foster care sector, reviewed recently by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, is one in which genuine non-profits such as the Foster Care Co-operative, with a proud record of support for their looked after children, are competing with national chains, venture capital financed and structured to minimise tax, through registration in tax centres overseas.

And when it comes to fake non-profits, there need to be stronger safeguards and if there are complaints or concerns, there ought then to be a single point of authority for the public to be able to turn to.

This is about the integrity of a proud and important sector of non-profits, one that plays a key role in people’s lives across the country.

When British house building briefly went co-operative

Malcolm Sparkes was a builder, but he wouldn’t be a soldier. Exactly one hundred years ago, as many others of his faith as a Quaker had been, he was locked up as a conscientious objector.

When peace came, he saw the opportunity to develop an idea that he had been working up while in prison, co-operative house building.

The Government had made a wartime promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’ and in 1920 started a scheme in which the Treasury would meet the residual costs of all houses built by local authorities. Because of the way it was designed, the scheme – we could dub it ‘Help to Build’ – led to a surge in the price of housing. Private builders and suppliers of building materials saw that local authorities had no incentive to keep prices low, because all the losses would be met by the national exchequer.

Sparkes offered to build houses on a non profit basis, proposing the formation of co-operative Building Guilds to do the work. With open book accounting, they would take up contracts, charging only costs, plus a percentage for overheads and a fixed allowance for the workers to have ‘continuous pay’. Finance could flow because banks had the security of payments from the local authority as the houses went up.

The idea captured the imagination of trade unionists and the idea, starting in Manchester and London, spread by the end of 1921 to 100 towns and cities. Local guilds were formed and soon amalgamated into one powerful umbrella body, the National Building Guild.

In the first eighteen months, everything went well, with the guilds outperforming both on cost and quality in terms of the houses they were building.

But of course, the competition of private house builders were vocal critics. Just as the Government had some years earlier changed the rules to disadvantage consumer retail co-operatives (prompting the formation of the Co-operative Party), so it changed the rules to pull the rug out from underneath the fledgling co-ops. The ‘cost plus’ contracts were outlawed and new requirements introduced which meant that far more working capital was needed while houses were going up.

“These changes could hardly have been better designed if they had been intended – which of course the Government protested they were not – to sabotage the Building Guild” comments Geoffrey Ostergaard in his 1990s essay on the tradition of worker control.

As night follows day, the enterprise went into reverse. The Co-operative Wholesale Society which had provided vital working capital to the early societies was forced to withdraw. By the end of 1922, the Guild was in the hands of the receivers.

Of course, there is a proud tradition of non-profit and mutual landlords and developers that flourished over the twentieth century and today in social housing, plus a vibrant renewal of community, co-op and mutual housing in recent years. The Confederation of Co-operative Housing is gathering in early May for an event, People and Power, on this.

But if the UK had been less hostile to co-operative house building early on, who knows, perhaps we might not have some of the housing challenges we do today.

As a builder, locked up in gaol, Malcolm Sparkes would perhaps have been having just that very same, hopeful dream… one hundred years ago.

‘Rather than complaining, we are getting on and doing things’ – stories of local economic renewal

One of the great contributions of community and worker co-operatives that I visit is often in acting as a flywheel for wider renewal of the local neighbourhood. As such, co-operatives can often be understood as part of a deeper process of empowerment or community development.



I have pulled together and published a series of slides today on the role of co-operatives in community economic development – with input from and acknowledgement of many partners and allies around this work (thank you), including the Co-operative Bank, Locality, New Economics Foundation, Centre for Local Economic Strategies, Responsible Finance, Power to Change, Reconomy & Transition Towns Network, New Weather Institute, Co-operative Councils Innovation Network, Co-operative Development Scotland, Development Trusts Association Scotland, Co-operative Alternatives (Northern Ireland) and the Wales Co-operative Centre.

There are a number of genuine success stories across the UK of local economic renewal:

  1. In West Dorset, rural communities have created local food links and new food enterprises.
  2. In the Hebrides, three quarters of land is community owned, with more renewable energy generated in South Uist now in Summer months than the national grid can handle
  3. In Preston, the local authority, police and health services are seeing where they can place contracts with locally owned businesses – a ‘community wealth building’ approach
  4. In Bristol, growing numbers of people have joined the local credit union, for local savings and a currency that can be cashed with local enterprise.
  5. In the Black Country, a loan fund supports local businesses turned down by high street banks to survive and thrive.
  6. Children in the seaside town of Rhyl get to play music after teachers laid off by the county council formed their own co-operative to keep music education alive.

Researchers, by the way, call co-op effects like this ‘collective self-efficacy’ – in essence, the belief and ability of people to come together to make a difference. It reminds me of a report I read recently from the Democracy Collaborative on community development initiatives in the United States, which found that: “virtually all of the cases profiled in this report stressed the value of embarking on an achievable task that builds capacity and buy-in within the community”.

Self-help has a proud history and if you look around, it is a story that is just as compelling today.

As Carolyn Loftus, member of the Esk Energy Society in Yorkshire puts it…“rather than complaining about things, we’re getting on and doing something.”


When you point your finger, your other fingers point back to you

I have spent twenty four hours with colleagues and children working in co-operative schools and it has been a wonderful experience.

To summarise what co-operative values mean, on my last leg at Beaufort Co-operative Academy near Gloucester, I asked the one hundred or so people present to point at the headteacher. That’s probably what it feels like most days as a head, or as any teacher, but my point was to do more than this – it was to share an old saying from co-operatives in Bulgaria:

When you point your finger at someone else, your other fingers point back to you.

The values of co-operation are rooted in self help and mutual aid, meaning that you can look to others to help you. But only if you also take responsibility to help yourself.

Hired: precarious work and the co-operative alternative

What’s work like for you?

A book out this month is an eye-opener on what work is like for the growing number of people who are self-employed, in agency work or on zero hour contracts. Hired is in a long tradition of writers and journalists looking to tell the story of people typically unheard, by going undercover. The author James Bloodworth worked in Rugeley, Blackpool, South Wales and London in low wage roles from picking for Amazon and working in social care to telephone marketing at an insurance call centre.

9781786490148The picture that emerges of low-wage Britain is grim – full of risk, poor for health and open to exploitation. “I hate it, I hate it here” one colleague hissed through chipped teeth.

Organising work through agencies means that those who in name are self-employed and free, in reality are subject to daily abuses of power and daily intrusions of their freedom.  When asking for a copy of his contract, the author was told that a contract did not exist because he was on a zero-hours contract. “If you had the temerity to ask why you had not been paid your full wages that week” he writes “they would talk to you as if you were something they had scraped off the bottom of their shoe.” 

The same abuses operate in housing, with a rising class of rapacious rentiers – unscrupulous landlords, sometimes first- or second-generation migrants themselves. They earn your trust until you are comfortably placed and then up the ante, demanding ever more money for rent and deposits.

What are the alternatives? As ever, alongside policy change, the practical hope comes from trade unions and potentially co-operatives. One colleague quoted in the book, Steve, says of trade unions: “I remember when I were seventeen. I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m not interested. What’s the point in giving them an extra £2 a week?’ Ten, fifteen years later, it’s like, they’re worth their weight in gold, they really are.”

Work for me brings me today to Cardiff, where we are holding a roundtable courtesy of the Wales Co-operative Centre, with trade unions and co-operatives to explore the potential of co-operative solutions.

Our report ‘Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Work’ calls for increased protection for those operating in the so-called gig economy.

“Not only do they have almost no security, but while the average employed worker is losing out year by year in real terms, the self-employed are doing even worse, earning less each year in cash terms,” said co-author Alex Bird. “1.7 million of those in precarious employment are earning less than the national minimum wage, with no real enforcement of the law, and the self-employed are not even covered by the existing legislation.”

The report, commissioned by Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative College, and drawing on work supported by the Network for Social Change, Wales Co-operative Centre and the Institute for Solidarity Economics, identifies co-operative solutions as a way of ensuring a fair deal for workers in an expanding gig economy. It is a follow-up to the landmark report of two years ago – Not Alone by Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and Philip Ross.

One of the inspirations for action in the UK is Belgium-based SMart – originally the ‘mutual society for artists’. This enables precarious workers operating in the freelance sector to obtain a range of welfare benefits – including unemployment benefit. SMart also provides its 70,000 plus members with tax support and advice. Sarah de Heusch Ribassin, Project Officer for the Development Strategy Unit at Smart, who spoke at last year’s Co-op Congress says: “many of those who were self-employed found the legislation around taxes to be so complex and were afraid to do things wrong. SMart offered an alternative that meant they no longer had to worry about making errors that would affect their income.” 

Working Together also identifies Indycube as a possible blueprint for how partnerships between trade union and co-operatives can flourish. Working with the trade union Community, Indycube is a rapidly growing network for freelancers and the self-employed and offers access to workspace in more than 30 locations, predominantly across Wales. One of the latest, in Rhyl, North Wales, opens on April 18th, in partnership with WCVA.

working-togther001_with-shapes_crop-600x250Not all those who are self-employed are in precarious work, by any means. There are also effective solutions for professionals, such as the work of the member-owned IPSE. Everyone can benefit from some services that you can’t get easily on your own, and where you want a trusted provider to turn to in need.

As Mark Hooper, the inspiring founder of Indycube puts it – if you work for yourself, but don’t want to work by yourself – then a co-operative can be good for you.

Cats, dogs, co-ops, Brexit and breakfast.

Over the weekend, I was with a wonderful gathering of staff and Board directors across the UK’s co-operative retailers. It was our annual Co-operative Retail Conference.

The photos are now up online of many of the people who participated. But there are a few four-legged delegates that we have had over the years and this year was no exception.

Newt is a cat who prompted some instant teamwork at the event, as she escaped her car and left Jane Cameron, one of the most experienced co-op housing specialists, searching with others across the surrounding lands. Radstock Co-op offered a room for the night for Jane and her partner, so the search could go on and eventually, underneath another car on the other side of the hotel, Newt showed herself and let herself be led to the warmth and comfort of a Co-operatives UK conference.

On stage, there was one slip from a speaker that I thought could be a hopeful meme to spread – at least for those concerned with Brexit. The speaker referred to ‘Breakfast’ instead of ‘Brexit’.

Now I understand that the substance of our planned exit from the EU is totally serious, but all too often the endless debates of the day are not. They can be fanciful, ideological, fantastical.

So the next time I hear something that sounds crazy on Brexit, I am going to think of it in my mind as Breakfast.

Breakfast Britain…? Breakfast Blues…?

Life after Breakfast.

It doesn’t sound so bad.