As the Co-operative Enterprise Hub prepares approaches its fifth birthday, there is a new face at its helm.
Incoming Hub Manager Claire Ebrey introduced herself to the majority of the Hub’s 130 advisors at the organisation’s conference in Manchester earlier this month. She hopes to meet the rest on a tour of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, taking in the seven regional co-operative development bodies, before Christmas.
Claire joined the Co-operative Group seven years ago from ethical marketing agency Creative Concern, for whom she had managed the Manchester is my Planet climate change campaign. She started her career with the Co-op as an ethics advisor, managing development of ethical policies for the Co-operative Bank and, for the first time, the Co-operative Food.
In 2008 she became the Group’s Ethical Outreach Manager. “My job was making complex ethical, scientific and campaigning messages accessible to co-op members and the wider public,” she explains. “We used quirky channels like film, theatre, and photography.”
Burma VJ, for example, tells the story of five video journalists imprisoned for their part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, in film and theatre, while graphic novel The Co-operative Revolution depicts the birth of the Rochdale Pioneers, and imagines them in the future, launching a mission to Mars.
When the International Year of Co-operatives arrived, Claire’s career took an unexpected turn. Up until then her work had involved commissioning works from external creatives. But she suddenly found herself getting more deeply involved in production.
“My life took a bit of a handbrake turn in terms of co-operation last year,” she says. “Before that the focus was on outreach. It was more issue based, but because of the International Year the issue was co-operation, and we had to make a special effort.”
Her contacts were not able to produce a suitable celebration of co-operatives, geared towards an international audience, so the outreach team created its own. The result was The Rochdale Pioneers film, which screened on FilmFour in 2012 to an audience of around 500,000.
As Director of the Co-operative British Youth Film Academy, a co-op that helps young people access opportunities in the film industry, Claire became involved in creating the film. “It was inspiring,” she says “I feel passionate about the history of the movement and the stories of the Petrol Massacre, New Lanark and the chartists.
“These stories are more graphically told in the film or the graphic novel. These mediums get them into your consciousness in a way that high level documents don’t.”
Since she joined the Hub in August, Claire has been listening and learning. Her aim, she says, is to understand what the Hub is doing well and ensure it continues. But there are some areas where she can bring new energy.
“It’s early days,” she says. “We’ve recently expanded access to finance through the Co-operative Loan Fund and the Community Shares Fund, and we’ve recently developed a pool of renewable energy specialists who can offer bespoke advice.
“I’m from a marketing background, so I’m keen to look at that. The Hub is very successful PR-wise. It’s by far the most successful thing we do in terms of press coverage in social goals.”
The Hub helped secure media coverage valued at £846,105 for its clients in 2012, thanks in part to its access to the Co-operative Group’s press team. “When these co-ops are setting up our PR team go off and PR like hell for them,” Claire explains. “These co-ops often don’t have the resources to do this kind of professional marketing.”
She also wants to develop a buddy system, to support groups that are considering the co-operative model by providing them with opportunities to learn from other co-operatives.
“There’s demand for it from the statistics we’ve seen already, and there is supply. People are already saying ‘I’ll help out’.”
Also in focus are the softer skills of co-operation, in businesses and organisations that do not have a co-operative structure. “The co-operative model might not be for everybody,” Claire says.
“If an organisation is co-operating already, do we try and squeeze it into our model or can we offer them support in developing those co-operative skills and structures in their own way?
“It might be that the hub has a role to play here. It’s definitely on our radar.”
Claire takes over as Manager of the Hub from Angela Davies, now Finance and Development Director at the Biomass Energy Co-operative, who has managed the service since it launched in 2009.