Co-ops make a difference. But how do we know they do?

It is simple to measure the economic impact of a co-op, just like we can do for all types of business. The information we do know is how...

It is simple to measure the economic impact of a co-op, just like we can do for all types of business. The information we do know is how much income a co-op makes and how much it gives back – whether that’s a dividend or community grant.

But what we don’t quite know is the social impact by looking at unmeasurable elements such as the effect on health and education. That’s why we’ve teamed up with Central England Co-operative to produce this special focus on measuring that impact, writes Anthony Murray. 

The society commissioned an external auditor to look at its impact through a method known as social return on investment. It is the first co-operative of its type to do this kind of reporting. Measurements that co-ops currently do look at are how members are economically involved and the investment in community and co-operative initiatives.

But, SROI reporting takes this one step further. In our research behind this feature, we spoke with Alastair Thomson, a co-op development and SROI expert for Centrifuge Co-operative.

He told us: “While it can be demanding on resources and time to quantify this wider contribution, it is probably about time that we took the measurement of the social value that co-ops create more seriously.”

The team at Central England told us that they want this report to be a conversation starter across the movement.

Alastair agrees: “Perhaps the movement could give some thought to how we can better articulate the outcomes achieved by a co-operative approach, and feed this into wider policy discussions in a more effective manner. This has the potential to focus thinking within the movement, as well as creating a wider understanding of co-operative benefits.”

Making a difference that’s worth millions: The view from Central England Co-operative

Why look at Social Return on Investment?

The questions we posed ourselves at Central England Co-operative were: What impact are we having in our communities? Are we giving our communities what they truly need?  Is it all working? And what data do we need to plan for the future?

To answer these questions and enable us to take an evidence-based approach, we worked with Social Return on Investment (SROI) specialist ‘Make an Impact CIC’.  We looked at the social value and return provided by our Community Dividend, award winning SENse to Aspire scheme and local activities organised for members.   

Martyn Cheatle, chief executive at Central England Co-operative, said: “We took the decision to undertake this new form of robust analysis of our community impact in order to inform future decision making and ensure that we continue to make a real difference to people’s lives.”

The power in people

When you give somebody more confidence, better fitness or a new skill, there’s nearly always a positive knock-on effect. They in turn are likely to put more into the community and take less out. So, for every pound we spend, many more pounds may well be generated or saved.

What does it all mean?

£20.50: this is the average SROI for every £1 spent on our community projects. Maria Lee, Central England president, said: “It is people, not just products and services, which are at the heart of our society, and it’s thanks to our members and local communities that we can achieve so much. By being able to demonstrate the value of our community initiatives, we can encourage more people to engage with us to make a difference to the areas in which they live.”

What it means for our future plans

The findings from this report will be used to help make effective, data-driven decisions. Ensuring relevant community impact will involve making the best use of the resources available, and to look at what possible social value and SROI could be achieved through new, innovative projects.

Martyn Cheatle added: “The success of our community initiatives as demonstrated in our SROI report is only possible due to the continued success of our trading businesses. The ability to continue with this investment is fuelled by the society’s strong financial performance and long-term strategy to deliver future business growth in a sustainable way.”

Our future strategy for community investment will be informed from the findings from this year’s report. It has identified areas and activities that deliver greater return and where Central England Co-operative should focus more energy.

It has also highlighted the impact volunteering and other non-financial activities can have on the overall social return.

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