What are co-ops doing in their communities?

Co-op Group Community groups are being helped by a raft of initiatives which are taking co-operatives back to their roots and building stronger links with the people they...

Co-op Group

Community groups are being helped by a raft of initiatives which are taking co-operatives back to their roots and building stronger links with the people they serve at a time when their values are needed more than ever.

One of the most ambitious developments is the membership offer launched by the Co-operative Group this autumn, complete with a pale blue membership card sporting the revived cloverleaf logo.

Five per cent of money spent on Co-op branded products is now handed back to the customer, while and one per cent is given to local causes. Over 4,000 groups are benefiting. The initiative follows a year of consultation and consolidation of community goals. In late 2015, the Group launched 50 Community Pilots led by Member Pioneers, tasked with setting up Co-op Local Forums – members, colleagues and local community groups working together to plan events and activities. The Group has expanded its in-store ‘Community Pioneers’ programme from 500 to 829 stores and hopes to end 2016 with over 1,000 taking part.

Group community lead Michelle Smith says: “Where we want to get to is where every colleague is playing their part because people expect us to know what is going on that’s important to their communities.”

Community Pioneers are colleagues allocated two additional hours every week and a budget to engage and support their local communities – organising fundraising events and providing meeting places for community groups. They are also provided with a planning and ‘how to’ toolkit, community training and in-store communication tools to support their work, consulting customers and colleagues about the best course of activity.

During 2015, Community Pioneers supported 655 community groups, and raised £97,679. A total of 350 colleagues, including 266 community pioneers attended a development day. As a result, 86% reported increased confidence in their role, and 67% of community activities are now beyond fundraising.

In 2016, co-ops gave back £12m to communities. Where did it go?

The Group’s major charity partner continues to be the British Red Cross with money raised assisting their work providing care and support for thousands of isolated and lonely people, helping them reconnect with communities and bringing them life-changing care in their homes.

Next May, a new round of good causes will be announced. “Right now we have opened up the scheme to ask members to tell us what they want to benefit next,” says Michelle. “We will look at all of the applications that come in and local colleagues will help us with the short listing process then go back to colleagues and the members they serve to ask which do they feel meet expectations the most.”

The Group’s engagement team is currently working with community pioneers to improve communications further and give extra support in partnership with colleagues.

Michelle says: “We want this to become a big part of our member-led model. Our colleagues will have a much more active base available to support and troubleshoot. Some communities are easier to engage with than others but they have a team they can call upon.”

The new membership offer is also expected to reap financial dividends for the Group. “It’s early days and we have just started a brand-new programme so it’s too soon to look to formal returns but we expect a significant increase in turnover of people shopping with us.

“We hope it’s going to continue so we can increase our reinvestment into the community,” she adds.

The Midcounties Co-operative

Midcounties, the largest regional co-operative in the UK, has a new community strategy in place with 20 regional community groups providing support and bringing colleagues and members together to identify relevant opportunities in their communities, and collectively taking action to make a difference.

So far 9,000 colleague-volunteering hours have been completed and over 1,000 young people have engaged in activities ranging from Fairtrade workshops to learning about employability skills.

Members, colleagues and customers have donated over 24,000 products to local food banks, providing meals for over 450 families. Some 40 members are currently involved in supporting regional community projects, ranging from input on local Steering Groups to community events.

Central England

Central England's Big Co-op Clean in Ripley demonstrated how co-ops have working for the benefit of communities in their DNA
Central England’s Big Co-op Clean in Ripley demonstrated how co-ops have working for the benefit of communities in their DNA

In January this year, the Central England Co-op board approved a revised framework for the society’s membership and community councils. The new structure created six councils with the aim of maximising the reach, engagement and communication with members and local communities.

 The councils are working with the society’s business operations locally as part of the membership and community strategy, and responsibilities include providing membership activities, promoting education, culture and recreation and focussing on four areas around corporate responsibility, food poverty, health and wellbeing, the local environment and youth employment.

Central England has also formed a joint working group from the board, management, membership team, and community councils to review all aspects of the society’s membership and community strategy.

There is also a new ‘Join In’ membership card designed to grow membership, enabling new members to instantly share profits, and have access to and involvement in membership and community activities and events and the opportunity to have a say at members’ meetings – all promoted in the members’ magazine, which is available in-store and online.


Scotmid’s community engagement has won awards, raised millions of pounds for local charities and uses everything from phone apps and social media to more traditional means of communication. 

Malcolm Brown, head of corporate communications, said: “When I first came here 10 or 11 years ago there was not a great deal of engagement. Now our Jigsaw magazine goes out twice a year and we have a website with a distinct private members section gathering e-mail addresses so we can speak directly to people. We have also launched our membership app where people can have an app on their phone with special offers and so on.

“We have a good profile on social media but we also go out into communities, working on cleaning up areas as well as supporting gala days and Fairtrade initiatives. We go out and speak to community groups and encourage them to work with us.

“A community group might come in and say we want to do something like a flower festival and need the streets decorated. Our store would pick up the phone to head office and say can you give us additional financial support or tips. All our stores know they can get in touch with my team.”

Scotmid also has 12 Membership and Community Managers and officers covering all its areas from north west and east Scotland to Northern Ireland and the north of England.

“Return in financial investment is not the priority, our return is on living the co-op values and principles – that is priceless. So is being recognised for the work we do.  For example, the Anthony Nolan charity had us down at the Houses of Parliament as community sponsor of the year and our defibrillator campaign won a major award. We are interested in helping the health of the communities where we operate. It comes down to our communities and staff recognising the work we do and that’s great for the morale of staff and customers.”

How do others give back to communities?

East of England's charity token scheme at Cannerby Lane
East of England’s charity token scheme at Cannerby Lane

East of England Co-op, based in Ipswich, implements a charity token scheme which gives shoppers the chance to have a say which charities they support. The initiative means various local good causes are supported each month, and new organisations are selected every three months. The charity with the most tokens receives £500, while the second and third receive £300 and £200, respectively.

In Essex, Chelmsford Star supports 369 local community groups via its Community Card scheme. A total of 80 groups have withdrawn funds in 2016 totalling £6,700 and over 60 community groups have gained invaluable advice and guidance.

At the Channel Islands Co-op, over 140 local charities including Jersey Cancer Relief, MIND Jersey and Guernsey Foster Care have benefited via fundraising events and sponsorship. The society’s Eco-Fund donated £25,000 to local environmental causes and last year gave £183,242 in discount to help the elderly community in Jersey.

In this article

Join the Conversation