Can everyday participation reshape the way co-operatives work?

'We help organisations think of people as citizens, not consumers'

Social innovation lab the New Citizenship Project has been holding a series of bootcamps to show how “everyday participation” can help reshape the co-op movement.

The workshops use case studies, practical tools and tips to show how to build member loyalty and engagement and really harness the participation and contributions of members.

“We help organisations think of people as citizens, not consumers,” says programme manager Iris Schönherr.

She believes this is an important shift to make, because customers only choose between options, while a citizen shapes those options.

“An organisation which views people as customers only asks itself what it can sell them,” she adds. “But when they think of people as citizens, they ask more powerful things – how can we help them, what can we achieve… that’s quite a different story.”

The New Citizenship Project has worked with non-governmental organisations, businesses and governments to try to encourage this shift – which requires fundamental change, says Ms Schönherr, not just in terms of marketing and communications, but to an organisation’s structure and purpose.

She said the team decided to look at how these principles would work for co-ops, which have the right structure in place for everyday participation. She believes it is an idea equally suited to worker co-ops – where it is “a golden ticket to involving members and building loyalty” – and consumer co-ops, where a participatory culture can create a safe space for collaboration.

To that end, last year the New Citizenship Project worked with the Co-op Group, Lincolnshire Co-operative, the Phone Co-op and Nationwide Building Society on an eight-month project. The businesses were partnered up to learn from each other and workshops and strategic coaching sessions were organised to to see how co-ops could work with their staff and customers to achieve more, in commercial terms as well as in terms of social impact.

The New Citizenship Project wants to share these findings with other co-ops and has created a toolkit on everyday participation.

“It really is fundamentally about finding the small but meaningful ways to involve people in what you do and to harness the ideas and energy of members,” says Ms Schönherr.

The project found that the four co-ops engaged with members in two different ways: economic participation – trading, choosing products and delivering feedback; and governance participation – voting for representatives and involvement in a democratic structures.

“The problem is that economic participation is used by lots of people … but people don’t realise co-ops are different and interesting,” says Ms Schönherr. Meanwhile, governance runs the risk of only involving a small group of people – “the usual suspects”, begging the question: “How do you bring a more meaningful participation?”

Everyday participation offers a “middle territory” where “people don’t just but from you, they buy into you”.

She warns that “there’s a bit of a lack in the co-op movement in how to have a meaningful relationship,” but believes co-ops can fix this using the new methods of engagement offered via the internet.

“There are organisations out there who are involving people in what they are doing but don’t have the co-op structure …  It’s in the co-op DNA, but other organisations are stealing your clothes. So there’s an opportunity there.

“When you offer more opportunities to participate you get more meaningful engagement – members stay longer, contribute more value, spend more money. You get better innovation as an organisation because you harness more ideas from more people, and because they are closer to the problem that co-ops are looking to solve, there’s more social impact.”

Co-ops are on board with this idea, she says, but need practical tools – which is why the project developed seven points for everyday participation:

  • Telling stories – giving people a framework and structure to share their personal experience.
  • Gather data – asking people to collect info as part of some exercise. Ms Schönherr gives the example of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, which asks people to count the birds in their garden on a certain date: the organisation gets useful data, the member gets a sense of ownership.
  • Share connections – giving people a way of talking to each other. Activities like the Ice Bucket Challenge tap into people’s connections and offer a structure to discuss an issue, she says (in this case ALS, or motor neurone disease).
  • Contribute ideas – sharing a project you are working on and asking for people’s ideas, for instance through suggestion boxes or asking on Twitter.
  • Give time – offering people the chance to do short but meaningful tasks to help your organisation, perhaps by testing a product.
  • Learning tools – learning opportunities to do with your business.
  • Crowdfunding innovation – ask people to fund new innovations or additions to existing systems, working on the Soup principle.

Ms Schönherr adds: “It‘s not about 100% member participation in everything you do. It’s more about a range of options … and communicating that at some point there’ll be something members want to do. Participation is a muscle you need to grow.”

The New Citizenship Project worked with apex body Co-operatives UK to print the toolkit and send it to 100 co-ops; co-ops attending the bootcamps will learn to use the tools in everyday life. An hour is spent sharing the thinking and case studies behind the toolkit before participants spend the day looking at how to work with it.

“You can do lots of small things starting tomorrow once you get to grips with the concept,” she says. “We ask people to come with a question or issue for the day, such as how can we work with members to impact on the community?”

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