Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table

Our friend Brian Van Slyke, designer of Co-opoly has written an interesting response to our article on co-operative culture, focusing on co-operative culture and start-ups. We like it so much it is posted in its entirety here:

Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table: Forging A Co-op Culture During the Start-Up Phase

The recent series on about creating a cooperative culture was absolutely fascinating and an important contribution to the co-op movement. One particular quote stuck out to me, from a member of the Calverts Co-op:

Co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast

This is a critical statement that rings extremely true in my experience. At the same time, many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.

Recently, I was at a co-op workshop in Chicago with a range of folks from different cooperative backgrounds – people who were learning about the subject for the first time, co-op developers, and a few who’d been in the field for a long time. One attendee was part of a large, newly forming catering co-op going through some of the start-up phase pangs. This co-op is in the midst of getting off the ground and many of their members work other jobs. Most of these members are people who’ve never been in a co-op before, who have mostly worked low-wage jobs with a boss that simply tells them what to do. This, the co-op rep told us, was causing problems. He, as the person with the original idea for the catering co-op, had been made into the de facto point man–and sometimes he even felt like a boss. This wasn’t what he wanted, but he wasn’t sure how to change things. People weren’t showing up for member meetings. People would be assigned tasks that they would never follow up on. He’d ask people what they should do about certain issues, and only get blank stares in response. They’d just ask him to take on all the responsibilities and be the face of the business. He told the rest of the workshop attendees that this wasn’t feeling much like a co-op, and he wanted to know what he could do to change things.

This all brings up an intriguing question. If co-op culture eats co-op governance for breakfast, how do we get people to the breakfast table in the first place? (If I dare stretch the analogy that far…) Some people have no history, no exposure, no understanding of what co-ops and co-op culture is in the first place. So how do we even get them to commit to the idea? Well, the co-op cater’s question sparked a long and lengthy dialogue in the workshop. It involved people ranging from those were starting their own co-ops to folks who had been in the co-op movement for quite a time. And below were some of the key take-aways from that conversation.

Making Sure You Have The Right People

One of the primary concerns this co-op rep had was: do I have the right people? Is it better to bring in people who are excited about the co-op mission, or who need the co-op the most?

There was a long and lengthy conversation over this point. But one thing that everyone agreed on was that you can’t start a co-op with people who don’t want to start it. The start-up stage is one of the most vulnerable times for any cooperatives. If you don’t have people who aren’t committed, who aren’t going to do everything in their power to make it work… then you really have to take a good, long look at whether your co-op dream has the chance of becoming a reality.

One thing that often happens during situations like this is a natural self-selection process–those who are not fully committed to the struggles of forming a co-op will fall off the bandwagon. At some point, however, you do have to decide on a key question: who is going to work with me, through thick and thin, to make this thing happen? And you need to commit to those individuals. Then, down the road, when you’re more financially and institutionally stable, you can be intentional about building room for those people who need more encouragement to join in on the cooperative culture and process.

Buy-In: Not Just Purchasing a Share

Another key point that was brought up during our discussion was that a buy-in isn’t just about purchasing a share in the co-op. It’s also about showing people that their opinions matter and will have a real, lasting impact in the workplace. That’s something most people are not used to, and simply don’t know how to react when they’re presented with the opportunity for first time.

One co-op developer shared his experience of working with a group where there was one member who never spoke – no matter what. One day, when the co-op was facing a serious issue, the developer went around the room and asked everyone specifically to share their thoughts about how the co-op should take on the situation. That person who never said a word? He gave the most in-depth and best idea of anyone, and the co-op eventually put his suggestion into practice. When the developer asked this silent member why he had never spoken up before, the member said it was because no one had ever asked him, directly, what he thought. He wasn’t used to being able to speak up and wasn’t comfortable with just jumping into a conversation.

Since then, this once silent member has become one of the co-op’s most vocal. The workshop attendees reflected that this was likely because not only was he asked for his thoughts, but he also saw them put into action. That was his buy-in to the cooperative culture.

Member Meetings: Should they be paid time?

Another thought that came up was something that’s been recently debated within the worker co-op movement: should member meetings be paid time?

Paying for members’ meeting times is certainly more difficult for start-up co-ops and those who don’t have much financial reserves. However, if people aren’t committing to attending meetings, then this is something that could be used to push them over the edge to join. In addition, most worker co-ops do consider member meetings to be labor. As such, that time should be paid for, if possible. For those who are unused to the idea of a co-op culture, and of being expected to participate in decision making and planning, this could be the needed catalyst to get them to the table.

Build Member Meetings into Existing Work Times

Related to the above was the issue of finding a time for everyone to get together. The co-op rep who was sharing his concerns stated that others were often making excuses about why they couldn’t attend meetings. Family issues, weekend mornings aren’t good for them, weekend afternoons aren’t good for them, weekend evenings aren’t good for them, after work hours aren’t good for them, transportation time and costs, and so on and so forth.

One suggestion that was offered was the idea of finding time during the busy workday to, no matter what, have the member meetings – while everyone is already there. Of course, this can be difficult for those who are already so jammed with work and crunched for time. However, it might be necessary if that’s the only opportunity where everyone can be together. In addition, this approach would help build the understanding that meetings are an expected part of the co-op’s work. They’re not separate or optional. They’re part of being in the business.

Making Communal Expectations, Sticking to Them

The final big suggestion was to make and agree to communal expectations, and to have everyone sign off on them. These expectations could even be posted on the co-op’s walls, so that everyone would be reminded of them on a regular basis. In this way, no one could say, “I didn’t agree to that!” Because they literally have. In addition, this approach builds a common understanding of what is expected from each other – instead of assuming people will work off of unspoken agreements. Finally, the co-op would have to ensure that people are sticking to their agreements and expectations. If people have agreed to attend all meetings, save for emergencies, illness, etc., but they regular miss them – there should be a process for grievance and review. If someone misses three or four meetings in a year without appropriate excuses, maybe they should be asked if the co-op model is for them. Whatever it is, creating clear expectations, having everyone agree to them, and having them upheld is critical to creating a vibrant cooperative culture.

Obviously, not all of these ideas will work for all groups (many of them are worker co-op specific) and there are many other ideas to share. The above is more of a synthesis of a brainstorm that happened in Chicago. Still, these are good ideas that should be evaluated for each start up co-op. Building a co-op culture is critical for building a successful, thriving, democratic organization. At the same time, we need to find ways to bring many people to the table to begin with.

Brian Van Slyke is the founder of The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a worker cooperative that creates and distributes educational resources for social and economic change, such as Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives

Co-operantics Conversations #6 Footprint Workers Co-operative

Our (nearly) last Conversation is with the wonderfully energetic Cath Muller of Footprint Workers Co-operative based at Cornerstone Resource Centre, Chapeltown, Leeds. Cath is also a member of Co-operative Business Consultants. Footprint was set up in July 2000 to provide printing services to the highest possible ethical and environmental standards. They strive to make printing as affordable as possible and offer a wide range of quality depending on budget and the desired look and feel of the printed matter.

Hi Cath, thanks for finding the time to talk to us! My first question:

Q:               Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?

 A:                Not a straightforward answer – the culture created the policies and the culture is the thing that keeps us checking the policies, otherwise we’d probably forget about them. The most powerful influence is practice and custom.

 Q:               How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

 A:                We’re a very small co-op and we all work part-time, so new recruits are usually right in at the deep end with taking responsibility and being part of decision-making. Our meetings are very informal, unfacilitated affairs, but there’s a lot of question-asking. We’ve also got a culture of trying to identify why things have gone wrong, including a fuck-ups spreadsheet, on which we enter details of our own mistakes and other people’s if they’re not in that day. We also commonly come up with ideas for how things could be better. We don’t vote on anything, just use informal consensus. The recruitment process itself is heavy on communicating the culture, including interviewing over lunch. We’re also proud of being a workers co-op and politics get discussed a lot, and I’m always on about co-op stuff, so there’s an explicit, constantly reinforced ethos. We’re also members of Radical Routes, so all members have to attend gatherings every so often and do Radical Routes work contribution.

 Q:               What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

 A:                You might think there’d be informal hierarchy issues, but I really don’t think there are, because we each do nearly all the tasks associated with the business, so there’s no hierarchy of knowledge in that way (or at least not for too long). Everyone’s got access to the cash-tin and the accounts software, everyone can update the manual, everyone can pick up everyone else on errors. It’s hard for me to judge, as I’ve never been a new recruit in the business!

 Q:               Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

 A:                Can’t think that we have!

 Q:               Do you use a member job description?

 A:                No – I think we might have written one once, but I don’t remember it being referred to, once someone’s in post. I think it’s the kind of thing that’s needed when people have more individual responsibility or there’s a clear division of labour. As it is, we know that whatever it is, we’re all responsible for it. If we were bigger we’d probably consider it, but at the moment it’s not necessary, we’re all on the same page I think.

 Q:               What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

 A:                People are more likely to work longer hours – partly because we have more work, partly because some of the current members of the co-op want more money than the founder members did – not sure why this is, I guess they have bigger outgoings. Also the culture is significantly affected by each person, as we’re small – we’re more into music-related and zine-related work than politics and co-op stuff, although there’s still a large proportion of that. We’re slightly less sociable with each other outside of work, but that’s just because the current crop aren’t so close and are all interested in different things. And we’ve all got partners, I guess that makes a difference!

 Thanks a lot Cath!

 Check out Footprint Workers Co-op

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, (feel free to add any further thoughts) and send to:
kate [at]
we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.


Co-operantics Conversations #2 The Phone Co-op

Phone Co-op CEO Vivian Woodell said “Good co-op governance means getting culture, people, structure and process right” and other experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of ‘co-op culture’. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas. We will be posting Co-operantics Conversations with a range of different co-operatives over Co-ops Fortnight, so watch this space!

Conversation #2 is with Amanda Beard of The Phone Co-op

Hello Amanda,

My first question is:

Q:In your view, which is a more powerful influence on members’ (both consumer members and employee members) behaviour – policies, procedures and rules or culture within the membership?

A: Culture within the membership

Q:How do newly recruited employee members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: By observing colleagues during the working day, members’ behaviour in meetings and during the induction process. We also have regular Values and Principles courses to make sure that all employees understand what we are based upon.  We encourage all staff to attend Annual General Meetings and Half Yearly Meetings so that they can see democracy in action and we also try to involve as many of them as possible in the annual board election for the same reason.

Q:How do new consumer members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of your co-operative?

A: At the AGM; through regular newsletters and also through the information sent out regarding the annual election.

Q: What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new members ‘learn’ the culture in your co-operative?

A: New consumer members don’t have the opportunity to engage easily as we don’t have shops or obvious places to participate other than AGMs and HYMs.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: We are building a membership zone on our website, intending to add more information on the co-operative movement as well as regular blogs, polls and surveys.

Q: Do you use a member agreement and/or a members’ job description?  (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t – sounds a very interesting idea.

Q: Have you seen your co-operative culture change over time?

A: I don’t think it has changed significantly although, as we have employed more people, it has become harder to share the values and principles easily.

Thanks a lot Amanda!

Check out The Phone Co-op and follow @phonecoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at]
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Coming soon for Co-operatives Fortnight!

At Co-operantics we have a few activities coming up for Co-operatives Fortnight.

We are organising some informal co-op networking in Bristol and Southampton, but of more interest to the rest of you, we will be hosting a series of “Co-operantics Conversations“.  We will be talking through some co-operative governance issues with various members of co-ops and publishing their thoughts in a bid to help co-ops learn from each other and spread good practice.  Keep your eyes peeled!

You can find out more about Co-operatives Fortnight on the Co-operatives UK website and using hashtag #coops14 on Twitter.

Is it time to widen the focus of co-operative housing and look at new forms of finance ?

How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners
How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners

Here is a simple proposition.  When people pay rent, it is not used to line the pockets of a property owner (e.g. Buy to Let) but used to cover the costs of providing the accommodation, with a little surplus for a rainy day and towards acquiring more properties so the benefit can be shared.  The resulting rent would be cheaper as the “top slice” of profit required for the landlord is taken out of the equation.

What’s more, if the property is owned and democratically controlled by those tenants, they will take care of their homes and will seek ways to manage and maintain the property that save money, because it is in their own mutual interest. We are talking about a housing co-operative.  It’s a “no-brainer” in a country that is suffering from a housing crisis and in which rent is spiraling out of control to satisfy the needs of investors.

However, there is a problem.  In order to buy the property you need to have sufficient money to put down as a deposit.  This is the primary reason why housing co-operatives are not as prevalent as you would expect given they are a “no-brainer”.  The problem of accessing capital to lever in finance to purchase the house has come up again and again with potential housing co-op start ups. So maybe we need to have another look at the financing of housing co-ops.

I have been involved as a professional advisor to housing co-operatives since 1998 and was an active member of a 70-member housing co-operative which is a Registered Provider (holding various officer roles including Treasurer) for 12 years.   In addition to supporting existing housing co-ops to improve governance or operational matters and to acquire properties, I have also worked with a number of capable pre-start groups who have had their intentions and efforts frustrated.

Blue sky thinking

I am challenging some of my own views here.  I’m not necessarily saying that what I suggest in this piece is how I want the world to be, but if we aim to grow the co-operative elements of the housing sector we need to broaden our horizons beyond our current focus and personal desires.  So, beware…blue skies ahead


There has been a tradition of those who speak for the UK Housing Co-op “movement” to focus on public sector housing and public funding for housing co-operatives.  They are doing a great job which needs doing, but this is only part of the housing landscape.  To make demands of the public purse to support co-operative housing while all political parties are committed to reducing public spend – winning a bigger slice of the cake while the cake is being reduced in overall size – should not be our only tactic.   Additionally access to public monies also brings with it the regulation of being a Registered Provider which carries an  administrative burden requiring scale and, from my observations, a tendency to move from a radical to a conservative focus.  I used to find myself fighting a battle to retain the members’ interests over the regulators demands – and winning, I might add.

This means that we have a widely accepted construct in the UK that to be a “housing co-operative” worthy of note you have to a) be of a certain size and operate in a certain way, and b) only provide housing for rent for people in need.  So what of those who are not technically in need but want to avail themselves of co-operative housing?  There’s a gap in the market, and the private rented market is set to boom by all accounts.  A case of need, a market, and co-operatives offering member benefit that provides a better offer than the market is fertile ground for co-operative development.

I believe there is room to encourage entrepreneurialism and growth of the co-operative control of housing by being widerin our definition of co-operative housing.  To grow co-operative housing we may have to challenge our own sacred cows.  There is a difference between what we ought to call “Co-operative housing associations” which is the well developed part of the UK sector and “co-operative housing” meaning housing that has some form of co-operative ownership and/or control.

Moving beyond co-operative housing for renters

In the UK there has been a tendency to downplay any role other than the renter-landlord dynamic.  Why is co-ownership ignored?  It isn’t ignored in the worker and enterprise owned co-operative sectors (notably the agricultural sector).  I am a huge fan of common ownership in general and social ownership of housing but we ought to accept exploring some level of co-ownership as an option if we aim to grow the co-operative movement and to use the advantages of mutuality to address housing issues.

Some people are interested in partial (or whole) private ownership of properties within a co-operative environment.  For instance, I have worked with a group who have potential members willing to sell their homes and invest in a co-operative to provide capital for a development in which they will live.  We had to unpick the difference between a mortgage holder who completes their loan and then has a vastly reduced household outgoing over time and the renter who pays rent in perpetuity.

People who have valuable properties may be interested in co-ownership, or may want to invest their equity to enable the creation of housing managed co-operatively in which they can live.  But do they get equity growth or just a reasonable  return on that equity?  And what is reasonable in this context – if the return on equity is not enough to cover the rent?  They have swapped a completed or near completed mortgage for a rental property and locked up their equity.  It throws up challenges.  But we should meet those challenges, not ignore them.

Maybe it is time to blaze a new trail for entry into co-operative housing for people other than renters.  My clients are still absorbing and considering the issues this has thrown up and what the final “offer” will be to the different “types” of member – all of whom will still have equal voting rights in how the co-operative is managed.

Co-housing is relatively small but growing in the UK. Some schemes incorporate private ownership and some Community Land Trusts offer private ownership but co-housing and CLTs are meeting specific needs (shared space and land ownership) that not all private owners will be interested in.

Ageing population

We have an ageing population who are asset rich but may require low level support if they are to stay independent in their homes.  There could be innovative co-operative solutions to meeting the support needs of home owners and the housing needs of others.  One brings equity, the other brings time.  Together they create a mutual solution.


What of the co-operativisation of leaseholders?  There are many leasholder companies for small blocks of flats that are established as share companies and often run by ex-bankers, stockbrokers or solicitors bringing private sector behaviours of hierarchy.  Co-operative principles could be introduced to these organisations and empower all the leaseholders, while providing the wider social benefits a co-operative brings over those of a private mutual.

“Buy to co-op”

What about “buy to co-op” instead of “buy to let” i.e. instead of establishing housing associations, we establish buy to let entities that just happen to be owned by the people who rent from them (or maybe even allow in investors in a limited capacity, or staff, using a multi-stakeholder model). They could provide a dividend return (profit share)s rather than the model of pre-distribution in the form of lower rents that UK Housing Co-ops offer.

Is access to capital the problem?

The biggest barrier to developing co-operative housing I have come across is access to sufficient capital to acquire a mortgage.  Some co-ops have used loanstock but this is fairly limited.  Withdrawable share capital probably isn’t the right approach if you are fully mutual and only want tenants or occupiers controlling the housing, so should we be considering a different approach that enables outside investors to support the needs of tenants without the tenants giving up control over management – a hybrid of the Community Land Trust model and the Housing Co-operative model.  Radical Routes have been working to establish a secondary co-op that will own some of the equity in new-start co-ops: Co-operative Principles put into action to grow the movement.  Yet the Radical Routes members are a tiny percentage of co-operative housing in the UK. Another innovation could be mutual guarantee schemes (or co-ops mortgaging their existing owned assets to release development capital for other co-ops) which enable new co-ops to establish themselves in the early days when it is not profitability but access to capital that dictates the success, failure or growth rate of a housing co-operative.  Rather than ask the government and policy makers to act, I suggest our own movement does something. (Remember those Co-operative Values of self-help and solidarity?)

One innovation that I am certain we need to promote as a movement is inward investment from the co-operative movement into co-operative housing.   In particular, we could target pension funds held by large co-operative employers. There must be some mechanism that can be created – even in the current legal framework – which would allow a pension fund to invest in housing developments that just so happen to be co-operatives.  Maybe a “co-operative housing fund” that invests bonds or similar – I know nothing about pensions!  And if they are start-ups with higher risk then the returns might be higher in the same way the traditional stock holders approach investments in high risk companies.

This would enable models other than the Registered Provider, which allows for a more diverse sector (lots of small co-ops as well as large ones). Some people I have met have been put off housing co-ops by their experiences in poorly run larger scale co-ops which devalue the individual operating on a tyranny by of the minority basis (like the state socialist approach of the needs of the individual being ignored or undermined for the “greater good”…now intone after me “The greater good”). Yes, part of the answer is to improve larger co-ops, but perhaps we need to question scale and encourage co-ops of all sizes.

Co-operative developers

If we are talking about co-operative involvement in the housing sector (which is what the pre-amble covered), why has the development side been left untouched?  Supply is part of the housing economy.  Mainstream developers have one goal:shareholder return.  What about co-operative developers – either owned by groups of housing co-ops, or as multi-stakeholder co-ops incorporating workers, customer housing co-ops (and maybe even investors) rather than operating purely for profit putting some of their profits into the community by funding CLTs or common ownership housing co-operatives.

Time to innovate?

Should we be innovating to address these capital issues (including more member investment) and move into less traditional areas – growing what for the UK would be a relatively new type of co-op housing? I.e. One that moves beyond the social housing sector and into the private sector.

Should our strategic innovation be to move away reliance on state intervention and toward self-responsibility, self-reliance as a movement and promoting Co-operative Principles 6 and 7 in investment away from government back to member users and other investors from the movement?  I am not saying ignore state controlled grant funding, but let’s not be prisoners of it!

More co-operation!

This blog by Co-operantics member Nathan Brown first appeared on his “Social Enterprise? Help!” blog.  Co-operantics has worked with a number of UK Housing Co-ops and continues to provide governance, strategic and business planning support to housing co-operatives, worker co-operatives and community co-operatives.

Co-operatives Fortnight – Let’s Co-operate!

What are you doing for Co-operatives Fortnight?  At Co-operantics we know the Co-operative Values and Principles can be used as a guide to transact business successfully as a co-operative.  This year, for Co-operatives Fortnight, we are focusing on the 6th principle “Co-operation Among Co-operatives”.

During Co-operatives Fortnight we are going to organise some co-op networking in Bristol and Southampton, where our members are based.  If your co-op is in either of those areas, get in touch and let’s see if we can work together to the mutual benefit of our co-ops.

Everyone can get involved in Co-operatives Fortnight.  Check out the Co-operatives Fortnight website for further details.

Ungovernable by one individual? Err… yes, it’s a co-op!

So the Co-operative Group Chief Executive has offered his resignation as he considers the organisation to be ‘ungovernable’.  His proposed solution, if Robert Peston’s report is accurate, is a more PLC-style Board composed of more executives and fewer elected members.  Clearly if such a move is adopted it would threaten the co-operative way the group is managed, but if that’s what Members want, that’s fine.  The key issue here is that Members (such as myself) should be the ones to make that decision, not the Chief Executive.  It’s not a Chief Executive decision, neither is it a Board decision. A decision of such magnitude, affecting the very nature of governance and strategic control of the enterprise, should be a member decision. Co-operative Boards are elected to oversee strategic management of the business.  Co-operative managers are responsible for operational management to achieve the strategic direction agreed by the Board.

But crucially, in a co-operative, on major issues such as structure, election of Directors and levels of Member profit distribution, Members should have the final say.  Members own the business, they are the sovereign body, and the Board should seek their views.  The fact that the most consultative process the Co-operative Group has carried out in decades – #haveyoursay – was targeted at the general public and not members was a worry.  If people want a say they can join. Membership is open and voluntary!

Far from democratic member control being a weakness, as is being reported, it is the strength of the co-operative model.  If anything, it is the failure of the Co-operative Group to use its democratic structure to listen to its members that is losing its advantage and causing the current problems.  If member economic participation was taken more seriously, we might not be facing the reported financial crisis that the Group is facing.

The Group’s Chief Executive is reported as claiming the business is ‘ungovernable’.  Yes, it is ungovernable by an individual, because it is democratically controlled – in much the same way a democratic country is ungovernable by dictators!  But that does not make it ‘unmanageable’ which should be the Chief Executive’s concern.  He is a servant of the Board not their master and should manage according to their agenda not set the agenda. Board scrutiny of strategic governance decisions is a strength.

One of the main accusations being levelled at the Co-operative Group at the moment is that its Board requires particular expertise in its members.  This is only true if your enterprise adopts a ‘management’ style of governance.  If you have a ‘representative’ style of governance (adopted by most co-operatives practising the Co-operative Principle of democratic member control)  it does not follow that your Board cannot make good decisions.  A key duty – and good practice – for Directors of co-operatives, whatever the legal structure, is to act within the bounds of their own skills and experience.  When they fail to have significant experience they should take specialist advice and act upon it.  You bring the specialists in when needed – you don’t hand the Board over to them!   On this, the largest co-operative in the land could learn from the governance good practice used by many of the smallest.

Another accusation that is levelled at the Co-operative Group is that, because the Board is democratically elected, executives cannot get on with their job of managing the business.  I believe this is a load of rot that is being levelled by people opposed to democratic member governance or who have personal grudges to bear.  If it is the case then the answer is to review the management systems, job roles and responsibilities of executives – not to change the nature of the governing body.  If this were a mainstream corporation they would call in management consultants. This is an option open to the Co-operative Group. Again, the largest co-operative in the land can learn from some of the smallest.  From small consumer co-operatives running a village shop or pub to the Phone Co-op or other co-operative retailers, the division between strategic governance, strategic management and operational management is made clear and executives have clearly defined job roles, responsibilities and decision making powers that enable them to get on with running the business in line with the wishes of the Board, who represent the interests of the Member owners.   Co-operantics, along with many of our co-operative development colleagues who deliver support to smaller co-operatives funded by the Group’s own Co-operative Enterprise Hub, possess the skills and understanding in this area that many corporate consultants do not!

We really hope that the Co-operative Group can resolve this latest crisis, and will not look to the City for a solution, where consultants do not understand democratically-controlled member businesses and will advocate a shift towards their comfort zone of shareholder interests over-riding those of consumers, workers and communities. Instead we hope it will look to its members and its sisters and brothers in the wider movement who are all willing and ready to contribute to a solution. The co-operative model challenges those city assumptions – and provides a more sustainable business model – let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Co-operantics at the Co-operative City Conference

Sat 8th March saw Co-operantics represented at the Southampton Co-operative City Conference.

In addition to updates from Southampton Area Co-operative Development Agency’s John Merritt & Dave Griffiths, Council leader Simon Letts and Councillor Andrew Pope on the “Co-operative City” idea and its progress, there was an excellent key note presentation from Nick Matthews, Vice Chair of Co-operatives UK and introductions to West Solent Solar Co-operative and Hamwic Housing Co-operative.

During the afternoon Nathan facilitated a workshop on Co-operative Skills.  With only a 45 minute slot we still managed to incorporate information about what co-operative skills are and why they are important along with a group session exploring what makes good and bad meetings.  Despite the time restraints the group even got to the stage of discussing strategies for  avoiding bad meeting behaviours and encouraging good meeting behaviours.  The way the exercise worked provided an opportunity for people to work in teams towards a shared task, which in itself may have helped some participants reflect on the way their co-op works!  Perhaps the most engaged disccussions were around co-operatives having too many meetings and problems with participation in meetings.  Are the two linked? Quite possibly. As participants agreed: there’s got be some purpose to the meeting for it to be worthwhile and if people aren’t attending, maybe it is because they don’t see the value in it.  Wise words.  There was even debate about whether or not incentives such as food are counter productive bringing people for the wrong reasons! The challenge to co-ops is to unpick the answer to “What’s In It For Me?” for members to attending meet – which may come back to ensuring the co-op is truly delivering member benefit and that the members are in agreement about what that benefit should be and what common goals they want to achieve.  That’ll be strategy then!

The fruits of participants’ labour:

Participant work from Co-op Skills micro workshop 8 March
Participant work from Co-op Skills micro workshop 8 March

Participant work from Co-op Skills micro workshop 8 March

If you would like Co-operantics to run a workshop at your conference or event, get in touch!

Welcome to Co-operantics

Our Home page hosts occasional blogs about what we are doing, what we think about what’s going on in the co-operative world and topics of interest. Elsewhere (see links) you will find free tips, tools and techniques to help you work together more effectively, information on our services and how to get in touch.