Co-op Group looks at new ways to engage membership and reverse voter decline

'We want to unlock the potential of the co-op model – there are consumers out there are ethically minded, who would like to know about us'

Facing a drop in the number of members voting in its elections, the Co-op Group held a morning session at Saturday’s AGM to highlight the work of its National Members Council to increase member engagement.

Dan Crowe, vice president of the council, said there had been a significant drop in how many people were voting in membership elections. In response, he said the council was working the Co-operative College, Co-operatives UK and Co-operative Press (publisher of Co-op News) to look at what co-operative member eduction, training and information (Principle 5) should look like.

“We’re developing this so our members can act better as members or stand for the council,” he said. “We want to unlock the potential of the co-op model – there are a lot of consumers out there are ethically minded, who would like to know about us.”

This means encouraging wider understanding of the co-op model, he said, and increasing member knowledge of voting rights and responsibilities.

Council member Jackie Savage said 24 member events had been held across UK, taking feedback from 1,400 members on key issues, and there were now moves to develop multichannel engagement to facilitate two way feedback with members.

The council is also looking at creating “hyper-local events that you don’t need to get to by car,” she said.

Related: Results of AGM votes on motions

Fellow council member Tanya Noon asked the session: “If we don’t stop telling people what the co-op movement is, how do we keep the co-op model working? We’ve seen numbers drop in all sorts of areas. How do we integrate our co-op principles into our business?”

Youth engagement was especially vital, she added. If we don’t get young people with fire in their bellies, what is the future of the movement?”

Mr Crowe said: “As an example of how ineffective we are, last year we had pop-up stores at festivals but no mechanism to swipe the membership card or accrue 5 and 1 points. This would have been a fantastic opportunity to recruit new members – we could have built a new democratic cohort, and we missed it.”

He said the education development team had been looking at the work of other organisations delivered training – both outside the movement, with Amnesty and Unison, and at other co-ops, such as Coop Denmark, which “has an ambition for each of its 1.7 million to be involved in the co-op at least twice a year”.

Improved participation through adult education and online learning adds value to the Group, said Mr Crowe, because “engaged and active members will shop with us more”.

Related: New action to tackle crime against Co-op Group stores

Ms Noon believes there is also space to use the 1% community spend more effectively, to propagate co-op values, and warned of a generation gap in membership. “We’re coming to a generation not brought up within the Co-op, who just see us as another shop,” she warned.

After the presentation, delegates held group discussions at their tables and fed them back. Suggestions included asking disengaged members why they weren’t voting; using in-store digital tech to engage young people; shouting more loudly about the Group’s innovations such as developing the first compostable carrier bags and trialling delivery bots; and learning from other co-ops in the UK and around the world.

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