Has the purpose of Co-operatives Fortnight been forgotten, asks its founder

'We don’t seem to be much further forward in getting the general public to understand what a co-operative is'

Co-operatives Fortnight could be used to highlight co-ops and co-op ways of working. But we’re forgetting to explain exactly what co-ops are.

I ‘invented’ the Fortnight, and I would like to see it used to its full potential.

As a bit of context: Several Co-operatives UK Congresses ago, when I was still on an Area Committee of the Co-operative Group in the South West, we were asked to put forward ideas to pitch at Congress. As I was doing quite a bit of work in the South West – including sessions at several universities explaining what co-operatives are, and how they work – I wondered how other organisations with complicated messages got theirs across.

I was (and still am) active in supporting Fairtrade and remembered how, a few years before, no one had heard of the Fairtrade concept – and, when it was first announced, it was complicated to explain and illustrate. So the Fairtrade Foundation came up with Fairtrade Fortnight, which provided a focus and an opportunity to explain the message several times and in many ways over their two weeks.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I shamelessly borrowed the idea and converted it into ‘Co-operatives Fortnight’. I pitched it at Congress, it was eagerly adopted and then a month later the Co-operatives UK board formally took it on. It has been in the calendar ever since.

Except it has now become a ‘doing’ two weeks rather than an ‘explaining’ two weeks. And we don’t seem to be much further forward in getting the general public to understand what a co-operative is, how they differ from other organisations and how the business model can benefit members and the community.

We seem to be focusing on being co-operative – very cuddly and friendly but open to all reasonable human beings – rather than doing the more difficult job of explaining how we are different, why we are different and the advantages that come from having a different business model. I realise that this is more complicated but that’s just the reason that Co-operatives Fortnight came into being in the first place.

I’m sure most of us have entered into a conversation with someone who thinks they know what a co-operative is; either a shop or a small craft group seem the most frequent ideas. Trying to explain that a co-operative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily…” and that there are many different types of co-operative usually results in eyes glazing over and attention wandering. By the time you get to “the thing they all have in common is a set of values and principles” you have usually lost them!

Related: We must work harder to explain the co-op way, says Group CEO Steve Murrells

Hence Co-operatives Fortnight – that’s the time to have a stall with leaflets to explain what a co-operative is to people who are interested and have time to listen.

It’s the time to post on social media frequently and in variety what co-operatives are and what they can do. It’s the time to engage in longer arguments about co-operatives’ advantages over plcs. It’s the time to showcase local co-operative businesses large and small and to keep explaining how and why they are different.

Yes, it’s also two weeks to be co-operative but surely we should be doing that all the time.

Chris Herries was inspired by Fairtrade Fortnight

These are our two weeks for shouting about who we are, what we do and how we do it better than anyone else. We can illustrate this with examples of co-operatives around the world and can highlight the strength we bring to the local national and international economy. We can talk about empowering people at grassroots level and challenging the capitalist economy – and we might even mention the co-operative commonwealth!

If, as co-operators, we really think that co-operatives are a better way of doing business, let’s get out there and tell people. And if different parts of the
movement – from retail co-ops and worker co-ops to Co-operatives UK and Co-operative Councils – work better together, we can make Co-operatives Fortnight stand out.

Fairtrade Fortnight helped to move Fairtrade from niche to mainstream; we need to do the same with co-operatives and we need to do it now.

What could co-operatives do during the next Co-operatives Fortnight?

  • Co-operative councils could put a motion to full council supporting co-operatives.
  • Co-ops could work together to host a co-operative forum to show case local co-operatives, explaining how being a co-op is vital to their business.
  • Set up a business skills workshops for people who want to start a co-operative.
  • Put out press releases to local / national media and use social media to explain what co-operatives are, how they work and what they are doing in the region, highlighting the events taking place throughout Co-operatives Fortnight.
  • Offer co-operative lessons to schools and help them set up local co-operative ventures.
  • Contact local university and college business studies departments and tell them about our often-neglected alternative business model and offer to talk to the students.
  • Get in touch with all the co-operatives in the area well in advance and suggest working together
    co-operatively to make this a time to promote what we do and how we do it.
  • Think up as many other different ways of putting our model out there!
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