With limited funding available for co-operative businesses and a reduced number of professionals to deliver co-operative business support, worker co-ops are exploring how to help the sector grow.
A new report by Co-op Culture, a co-operative development co-op, has found that the key issues with which worker co-operatives need support are finance and starting up.
Released in January, the report is based on two workshops by Co-op Culture with support from SolidFund, the worker co-op solidarity fund.
Barefoot Co-operative Development Practitioners is based on the idea of co-ops helping each other to support and promote the worker co-op model.
The initiative came from co-operative development bodies themselves, says Dr Mark Simmonds, a member of Co-op Culture. A lot of co-operative development bodies have formed from the old co-operative development agencies.
Others were set up later by members of worker co-ops who found their way into delivering co-operative development. As some of the co-operative development leaders are approaching retirement, they are considering how the sector could continue to benefit from support and advice.
“A lot of co-ops deliver support on a geographical basis – we need to identify co-ops in particular areas and then introduce them to co-op development bodies in that area,” said Dr Simmonds.
The National Co-operative Development Strategy, produced by Co-operatives UK in 2017, also projects a significant growth in the size of the co-operative economy and the number of co-operatives. The strategy sets out a target to triple the rate of co-operative start-ups and conversions.
“If the targets in the national co-op development strategy are going to be reached, we need more people to be delivering them,” he explains.
The report found that existing co-operatives are already delivering significant amounts of co-operative development support for free without publicising it. Worker co-operatives are keen to explore greater involvement in promotion of the co-operative option, co-operative peer-to-peer networking and the actual delivery of co-operative business support.
What are their key challenges? While many members of co-ops have developed significant business skills developed through their work, they can lack knowledge around business development processes and funding models, and be unfamiliar with some of the language used.
The report suggests there is a general lack of knowledge within the co-operative sector around the support programmes that are already available for co-operative development.
Another barrier is self-doubt among the co-operative development Barefoot practitioners about whether their skills are transferable, or their skill levels sufficient.
“They had the skills but lacked the context, even on finance side; they are skilled but don’t have the experience of supporting other co-ops.They are a lot better than they know they are,” says Dr Simmonds.
Participants in the workshops, which took place in Manchester and London, stressed that engagement in the Barefoot programme should involve significant continuous professional development (CPD) opportunities for the individual co-op members involved. An online survey by Co-op Culture also revealed that co-ops wanted support with improving facilitating and mediation skills, co-operative team working, participative management and co-operative organisation management.
They also asked for help with operational planning, restructuring business, consensus decision-making, change management, policy governance, self-management systems and legal advice.
The workshop revealed there was a big desire among worker co-ops for a curated space around resources. Participants are now exploring the possibility of creating a central resource platform for worker co-ops as part of a wider idea of setting up a platform co-op around co-operative development.
Co-op Culture is working with Co-operatives UK to help develop training courses for Barefooot practitioners to equip them with the context, tools and resources as well as the confidence to deliver support to co-operatives and people wishing to start them.
The co-op has already delivered a training course on co-operative finance, looking at understanding accounts through Co-operative UK’s the Hive programme. It is also exploring the idea of developing one-day workshops for co-operatives to learn the basics of co-operative development.
Following the Barefoot co-op development workshop in Manchester, a Worker Co-operative HR Group has been established as a mutual support group and community of practice.
The report suggests ways worker co-ops can help each other, such as publishing “How to” guides, using existing support providers, trusted co-op developers and networks and meeting up to share experience.
The topic will continue to be explored at the Worker Co-op Weekend in May, where members of various co-ops will discuss what skills they need to develop around co-operative business support and what training they would require for this.
The theme will also be on the agenda at the Co-operative Development Body Forum and further examined at Co-operative Congress in June.