‘We are the rebuilders’: Don Morris, new chair of Co-operatives UK

'There’s never been a more important time for us to promote, develop and unite co-operatives'

“If you look at the mission statement of Co-operatives UK and what we’re about, there’s never been a more important time for us to ‘promote, develop and unite co-operatives’,” says Don Morris.

The CEO of Radstock Society was elected chair of Co-operatives UK last month and says the organisation is in the middle of some massive changes – internally and externally. “We’ve got global crises going on and Co-operatives UK is recruiting for a CEO; I’m hoping to offer a bit of stability,” he says. “I really want to be a good conduit of communication between the board and the staff team who are so dedicated and so good at what they do.”

Mr Morris first found out about co-operatives through an industrial placement during a sandwich degree at Portsmouth University – and was impressed with the idea of the co-op ownership model and ethical stance. He later joined Southern Co-operative, where he spent 14 years in IT, internal audit and as finance manager.

“I was reading the Co-op News and there was a job advertisement in there for a chief financial officer and secretary for Radstock Co-operative Society,” he says. “It was in my native West Country and at the time, the CEO was Alan Bonner, who had just spoken at Congress and he seemed to be a bit of a go-getter.”

Mr Morris joined Radstock Society in 2008, and the board of Co-operatives UK in 2014; for the last two years he has been vice-chair under Nick Matthews, and has chaired the audit committee.

“Nick has been an excellent chair, I’m really grateful to him. I learned a lot from Nick and I continue to learn a lot from him. He’s going to continue as vice-chair to provide stability and continuity.”

He is also looking forward to working with the new CEO when they are appointed. “Whoever we find is going to have a wonderfully challenging and rewarding career,” he says. 

“They are going to have to be an all-rounder. We are expecting so much from that position: they’ve got to understand the business model; have good business acumen; be able to communicate well, internally and externally; and so much more.”

Mr Morris is excited about combining his two roles. “I had a long and detailed conversation with the Radstock Society’s board of directors before I put myself forward. They are 110% behind me, and I am very grateful for their support. We have put in place people and systems to free me up a little bit so I can dedicate more time. It’s going to be challenging, but if [co-operation] is in your blood, you make the time and can be effective in different roles.”

He plans to bring a co-operative style of leadership (“The ability to consult and listen and form a consensus is really important”) – and connect with members. “As a co-op, we are all about providing what our members want. Co-operatives UK is the first port of call, it’s a centre of excellence. We do campaigning and try to get changes in policy, but it’s also being quite entrepreneurial about what we do as an organisation, having business acumen and being able to provide the services that our members want and rely on.

“Being able to assist our members right now is vital, and that’s why I’m 100% behind the ‘We Are the Rebuilders’ policy briefing we are launching.”

The paper makes four co-op offers to everyone working for a “more sustainable and just future”; sets out what Co-operatives UK is already doing with its partners; and calls on national and local governments to partner with them to multiply impact. 

The four offers are to:

  • create decent new livelihoods 
  • keep viable jobs in their community
  • breathe new life into local assets and enterprise
  • convert new-found community spirit into transformative social action.

“With co-ops we can do more than weather the economic storm caused by Covid-19,” says the briefing. “We can help meet the biggest challenge of our time, by rapidly reducing environmental harms while still living in a way that engenders widespread wellbeing. And we can do it in ways that are fair, democratic, empowering and aspirational.”

The policy briefing provides a snapshot of what co-ops are, why they are important and what the barriers are to growth. It looks at what Co-operatives UK is already doing and what government can do to multiply its impact – and it outlines more general policy changes to “make the UK a better place to start and grow co-operatives”.

Co-operatives UK’s Co-op Economy Report 2020 highlighted how 76% of co-op start-ups are still flourishing after the difficult first five years, compared with just 42% of new companies. The organisation is aware that across society, transformative action is already being driven by factors such as the emergence of digital tools, the maturing and evolution of the ‘community shares’ financing model and the explosion of mutual aid during the coronavirus crisis. 

“The pandemic has laid bare economic and social injustices and fragilities in critical systems,” says the briefing. “It has also given us a glimpse of how much our lives would really need to change to actually avert climate disaster.”

The four co-op offers in the paper relate primarily to supporting the creation of new co-ops in a particular context. But it also makes the case for more general policy changes that would make it easier to set-up a co-op in the UK, and the government action needed to make it easier to run and develop co-ops once they are operating. 

This includes the need for an effective environmental and social floor (co-ops are “unfairly disadvantaged when government policy prop ups businesses and business models that undercut them environmentally and socially”); business support programmes; procurement; legislative reform; and HMRC services.

“We’re saying that we want to rebuild back better and that the co-operative model is here for communities,” says Mr Morris. “Where we can really play our part in this is in recognising that jobs are safer if they’re co-operative. We’ve got a bit of durability and a bit of resilience in our businesses. We’ve demonstrated that we are relevant in all walks of life.

“We’re going to do this in any case, but getting the government on board would have a multiplier effect. It would mean that we build back bigger and faster than we would otherwise.”

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