How charities can improve by adopting co-op principles

There has always been a gulf between the co-operative movement and charitable work – but now a care sector charity has drawn on mutual ideas to pioneer a...

There has always been a gulf between the co-operative movement and charitable work – but now a care sector charity has drawn on mutual ideas to pioneer a governance model giving greater control to people using its services.

The new model, created by Learning Disability England, could revolutionise the way charities are run and bring them closer to co-operativism, by incorporating the voices of its service users, their family and friends and other interested groups.

Hopefully this could see charities move away from the top-down structure which has dominated the sector in the past – a phenomenon which leaves “charity”, at its least appealing, conjuring images of well-meaning Victorian benefactors, patting the deserving poor on the head while leaving the structures that create poverty unchanged.

Mutuality, on the other hand, was always about people taking the power into their own hands, and creating their own solutions. Against a backdrop of troubled times, this offers organisations scope to rethink how being a charity might look.

The charity Housing & Support Alliance (H&SA) was formed by the merger of two charities involved in social care, one an umbrella organisation for care-providing organisations and the other a network for families and friends of people in need of care. Over the past few years, the charity has been promoting a self-advocacy network for people with learning disabilities, People First England, and this approach has prompted a more radical rethink.

H&SA has continued to be a network organisation, both for other organisations providing care and for families, but in terms of its governance and structure it has been a very traditional charity. At any given time the “members” of the charitable company – as is common with charities – were the trustees – and, although H&SA consulted widely over key decisions, ultimate power stayed with that small group.

Over the summer, at the House of Lords, H&SA re-launched itself as Learning Disability England (LDE): a new name, new focus, and new governance structure. The name was chosen to reflect the values of People First England, and demonstrate the new focus that LDE will have on promoting – and following – the views, aspirations and voice of people with learning disabilities.

Learning Disability England has looked to the co-op movement for inspiration
Learning Disability England has looked to the co-op movement for inspiration

The governance structure was chosen to reflect that new focus, and to make sure that the voice of people with learning disabilities and their families was hard-wired into the organisation. This structure was deeply influenced by some of the current thinking around social co-ops, emerging from the work undertaken by Co-operatives UK and now being promoted by the Co-op Care Forum across England, and the Welsh Care Forum across the border.

LDE’s lawyers, Anthony Collins Solicitors (ACS), are charity specialists who are also actively involved in supporting the Co-op Care Forum. So, we were really excited when H&SA told us about the movement they wanted to make towards a new kind of governance structure. One issue for charities is how they can build in real accountability to those who use their services; on this score, the LDE model – based on some of the multi-stakeholder thinking that has come out of the work with social co-ops – is genuinely breaking new ground for a charity.

Instead of a membership made up largely of professionals, membership of LDE will be open to four groups of people – people with learning disabilities themselves; their friends, families and supporters; the organisations that work with them; and other groups interested in offering support. Each group will have a full say in the organisation, with no one group being able to dominate or take over.

Each group will also appoint an equal number of individuals to a new representative body, which will work to make the real voice of the members heard. That representative body will appoint the board of trustees (working with the current transitional board), aiming to find the people with the best skills and experience to steer LDE through its new phase of work.

Related … Time for charities to consider a new governance model?

The new structure will therefore combine accountability and democracy – in the role of the representative body – and professional, skilled management responsibility, through the board.

LDE will be one of the first large charities to change its governance by inbuilding the principles of mutuality, moving from a “philanthropic” model to a new one based on open ownership and participation.

A charity can adopt co-op principles without needed Charity Commission consent – but it needs to make sure it doesn’t change its key aims, the provisions in its constitution about how members or the board can benefit, or the provisions on winding up.

This is entirely deliberate, as Alicia Wood, chief executive of H&SA and co-founder of LDE, explained at the launch.

“For too long people with learning disabilities have been disempowered by organisations who have spoken on their behalf, rather than empowering them to speak for themselves – or have involved them only in a tokenistic way,” she said. “We wanted to shift the power that charities, and indeed chief executives, usually hold and we needed structures that would help us do that.”

Alongside the technical wording of LDE’s new constitution, ACS also prepared a plain English guide, designed to be as accessible as possible for all members of LDE.

Because LDE has not made any changes to its governance that are regulated by the Charity Commission, it has not needed to obtain the consent of the Charity Commission, which has speeded up the process considerably.

The whole journey demonstrates that charities can think differently about their governance, and if they want to be serious about working in mutual and empowering ways, far more may be possible than they first thought.

What is a charity?

  • In law, a charity is any organisation that:
  • Has key aims (“purposes”) that the law recognises as exclusively charitable
  • Can show that it works for the wider public benefit
  • Carries out charitable activities (and not too much activity that isn’t charitable, like trading simply to make a profit)
  • Uses any surplus it makes to further its key aims.

The Co-op Principles for Charities

Charities can adopt some of the co-op principles to work in a mutual way, provided that it doesn’t cease to be charitable. 

  • Education, Training and Information
    Many charities engage in education and the sharing of information, such as raising awareness of issues through campaigns. They also run training sessions in their area of expertise to promote best practice.
  • Member Economic Participation
    Members of a charity contribute financially to a charity, but the one part of this principle that doesn’t apply is the ability to distribute profits to members.
  • Co-operation among Co-operatives (or other organisations)
    Many charities instinctively co-operate with other organisations (including co-ops). They regularly work in networks to share best practice and coalitions when campaigning.
  • Concern for Community
    By their very nature, charities show concern for their communities. A community for a charity could be a geographical area or a group of people united on a particular topic.
  • Autonomy and Independence
    Charities are actively encouraged by the Charity Commission to act freely in the best interests of their beneficiaries.
  • Voluntary and Open Membership / Democratic Member Control
    These are two key governance issues that may require thinking through. Charities have to demonstrate that they are acting for the wider public benefit. If the charity works with a wide section of the community, and if ways can be found to avoid any one group taking control, then this shouldn’t be impossible. The Commission actively encourages charities to seek “user involvement”.
In this article

Join the Conversation