On Thursday 19 November, more than 140 professionals from co-operatives across the UK came together to share best practice and learn about running a co-operative business.
Over 70 separate organisations were represented at Co-operatives UK’s Practitioners Forum, from retail, agriculture and creative industries, as well as sports clubs, housing and the energy sector.
The day in Manchester explored topics across five forums: membership; human resources; finance; communications; and governance. Each forum was overseen by a facilitator, with presentations given by industry professionals over morning and afternoon sessions. Delegates discussed how changing technology, legislation and the co-operative difference could be used by co-operative organisations in their different sectors.
“Governance in co-operatives is distinct from other types of businesses which is why it’s a major focus area at the Practitioners Forum – and in our work more widely,” says Helen Barber, head of co-operative advice at Co-operatives UK, who facilitated the governance forum.
“Good governance supports a co-operative’s board in its task of creating and maintaining a strong and sustainable business that meets the needs of its members. Conversely, a neglect of governance weakens the framework of accountability and carries multiple risks to the business and its strategy over time.”
Governance challenges addressed included how to develop an active and engaged membership, and how to put an effective board in place. “There’s a need for a diversity of experience and skills within the board – but also a board culture that not only allows the business to thrive, but actually drives it forward,” adds Ms Barber.
“We looked at the three components of a good board and how we develop these – with practical guides for directors and the membership more widely.
There was also recognition of a need to look wider than ‘codes’ to ensure good governance is embedded within the co-op and its board.”
Adaptability was an issue which was raised across different forums, including the membership forum facilitated by John Atherton, Co- operatives UK’s membership officer.
“We live in a fast moving world of technological change, customers and members demand instant responses. How do we respond and adapt?,” he asks.
“Membership is at the heart of all successful co-operatives. The combination of meeting members’ direct needs but also that feeling of being part of something with greater social purpose is very powerful. Members do want to participate and engage with their co-op, but not necessarily in the traditional way of attending meetings and AGMs.
“Not surprisingly what came out of the sessions was the need to co-operate better, whether this is between co-operatives or between co-ops and their own members.”
In the communications forum, participants discussed the need to get the right messages across in the right way. “There’s a widespread recognition that more people need to understand about co-operatives. Without effective co-operative communication, this is not going to happen,” says Peter Couchman, chief executive of Plunkett Foundation and forum facilitator.
“The main challenges are understanding the distinctive nature of co-op communication and also harnessing modern communications tools to get our message across. There is a need to integrate messages across old and new technologies, and to ensure that internal communications match external communications.”
The 2016 Practitioners Forum takes place on 17 November.