Stories of governance: Mee three directors from three very different co-ops

Barbara Rainford from Midcounties, Ross Hodgson from Co-operatives UK, and Kate Whittle from Bristol Cable talk about their experience as directors

Good governance is a crucial element to the success of a co-operative – but what does that entail?

Co-op News has been unlocking the mysteries to good governance – and here, speaks to three directors about their experience.

Barbara Rainford is a director at Midcounties Co-operative and represents the society on the boards of Co-operative Press, Co-op Futures and Go-op.

Barbara Rainford has a lifelong involvement in the third sector

My day job is… a partner in a marketing and PR business helping people with online promotion in an increasingly digital world. Having run my own business since I was 18, my background is in the commercial world but I have always been involved in the third sector in some way – mainly helping young people.  Currently I am a volunteer on the Young Enterprise board in Shropshire.

My first directorship… is at Midcounties. The co-operative purchased the Tuffins stores which gave them a bigger presence in Shropshire and the Welsh borders. There were no directors from Shropshire on the Midcounties board so as a member, I decided to stand for election. As well as representing Midcounties on the Co-op Press board, on Co-op Futures and Go-op  (open access training co-op), I attend many co-operative events representing Midcounties – such as the Ways Forward Conferences, Co-op Group AGM, Co-operative College Conference, Co-op Party Conference, Co-op Congress, Co-op Energy conference, Future Co-ops Conference and Plunkett AGM.  At all these events I have met different people who play different roles in co-operation all over the world.

Since I was elected… I have learned so much about co-operation. I was amazed to find out how much co-ops help the local communities they serve and the volunteer hours donated by all colleagues. Midcounties has now set up regional communities which focus on local areas, for example, and I am really pleased to have been able to help with this. Getting local publicity means more people know about the role co-ops play in the local community. Last year the Shrewsbury Regional Community supported two local organisations – the Street Pastors and young carers – and organised a trip for young carers to Alton Towers and to the Churchstoke Fun Day. The Street Pastors provided transport.

Related: Ensuring good training in co-op governance

One of the biggest challenges to becoming a director is… Time. You have to be able to devote sufficient time, not only to the board duties in attending meetings and all the reading of the relevant papers, but being involved in promoting co-operation, through talking to members at events, explaining the true meaning of co-operation, being involved in the local community and participating democratically – as well as attending half-yearly meetings and AGMs.

The advice I’d give to anyone wanting to become a director is… Just do it!  If you are passionate about helping people to live in a better world, co-operation is the way forward.

Ross Hodgson joined the board of Co-operatives UK earlier this year and is part of the organisation’s governance reference panel.

Ross Hodgson is a worker-member at Suma

My day job is… as a worker-member at Suma, the UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler/distributor. It has a flat structure but within that I currently co-ordinate the buying and service areas.

My first directorship… is at Co-operatives UK. I was elected to the Worker Co-op Council in 2016, which is elected by worker co-operative and employee owned members of Co-operatives UK and acts as a sounding board on issues affecting worker co-ops. The people on the council have always encouraged me to get involved in more things – starting by encouraging me to stand for the council in the first place. The Worker Co-op Council has two places on Co-operatives UK’s board. Unfortunately one of the people on the board had to stand down; I put myself forward for the place and the council elected me. I am also on Co-operatives UK’s governance reference panel.

One of the biggest challenges to becoming a director is… having the confidence to think you can do it – and getting past the initial stages of what can seem like a mountain of information to digest.

The advice I’d give to anyone wanting to become a director is… throw yourself at opportunities and get involved in different pieces of work where you can – that applies to anyone at any co-op. Hopefully, through that, opportunities will present themselves. Talk to the people in those roles, and you’ll probably find what they do is something you could do too. You may have business skills, or life experience that can add value. Saying that, it’s obviously important you do familiarise yourself with the duties of a director, look at what you are good at, and try to develop areas where you aren’t. It’s important to differentiate the role of being a director with the role of being a manager; there’s crossover but you need to think more strategically as a director.

Kate Whittle has been a director of several different co-operatives – and has most recently been elected to the admin board of the Bristol Cable.

Kate Whittle is a co-operative skills trainer

My day job is… a freelance co-operative skills trainer. I run training courses, away days and strategy sessions, focusing on, for example, decision making, how to run effective meetings, and planning, looking at the processes behind them.

My first directorship. was with the Phone Co-op, for four years from 2003. I stood because I love the organisation – it’s a wonderful example of how to run a co-operative! Today, I am a director of Go-op – and most recently the Bristol Cable newspaper. I read the Cable and immediately thought I wanted to get involved so I joined up as a member about two years ago. I wanted to support them more, so this year stood for the admin board and was elected in April.

Getting the governance right in a co-op is important because… conflict can arise when it goes wrong. There needs to be really clear roles within the board; the board overstepping its mark can be a source of conflict, as can them not doing enough.

The advice I’d give to anyone wanting to become a director is… go for it! Read the minutes from the last few meetings, find out about the history, how the board works, the different roles, how much time is required, etc. But also talk to existing directors. It’s important to have conversations – and to ask for an induction process. Induction is really important, as people need to understand what they’re getting involved in – a lot of people will bring assumptions which will be challenged in co-op models.

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