Members examined the challenges and opportunities faced by the Co-operative Group during a special workshop at its annual Values and Principles Conference.
The workshop was designed to encourage delegates to explore elements of the Group's strategy and provide feedback to the Board.
Fay Bowden, Co-operative and Membership Officer asked delegates to write down key words that were used to describe co-operatives. Some of the words mentioned included: democratic, community, independent, passionate, historical, over-ambitious, secretive, misunderstood, complex, short-sighted, well-intentioned, disjointed, local, ethical, beloved, multi-faceted, boring, global, innovation, self-critical and modest.
When suggesting words that were associated with co-operatives, members also emphasised that most people do not know what the Co-operative does until they join it.
The next phase of the workshop involved asking members to think about current challenges faced and assess what co-operatives could do to address these.
Members were particularly concerned about the lack of decent housing and jobs for young people, the aging population, the loneliness and isolation affecting the society’s vulnerable people as well as the future of education.
Co-operatives could play a role in helping to find solutions to all of these issues, they said. Members suggested the Group looked at co-operative housing and childcare more. Members also suggested using the society’s lands and buildings to address the housing crisis.
Some also agreed that it should encourage less consumption, rather than offering “buy one – get one free” promotions.
Collectively, co-operatives can drive price down, maintain quality and encourage people to save money for charities, they said. Delegates were particularly concerned about payday loans. They argued the society should work with credit unions more to help people so that they do not need payday loans. As enterprises run in a democratic manner, co-operatives could also help to encourage people to vote, they said.
Asked what the obstacles would be in setting up the co-operative they had envisioned, members said the public’s apathy was by far the greatest challenge. Co-operatives needed to market their message better, argued some members.
As part of the exercise, Graham Hammond, Regional Secretary of the South East region, asked members to think of the key strategic themes that could be used to turn the group around. Delegates taking part in the session suggested improving efficiency and getting prices down, while looking at the needs of the customer. Others also argued the society should explore other market opportunities such as public transport.
An innovative project was offering bank accounts for prisoners. The Co-operative Bank was the first bank to offer basic accounts to prisoners back in 2010. “It was not a sexy project, but did a lot of good. We need to sell these types of projects better to the public”, one member said.
Mark Craig, Director of Co-operative Relations, said the three things that came out of the discussions on how to make the co-operative difference were: the power of co-operation, the importance of members and the meaning of being loyal.
Co-operation is important because it guarantees that all stakeholders discuss the issues and take decisions together, explained Mr Craig. He added that the Group’s Board had already discussed many of the ideas put forward by members. The Young Members’ Board also engaged in a similar exercise.
Bill Sadler, member of the Inverness and Moray Area Committee and also a Regional Board Member and a Trustee of the Co-operative Foundation, raised the issue of changing the structure to enable more members to get involved. Mr Craig replied by saying that the Group would like to develop a mechanism that would enable all seven million members to share ideas and concerns and that it was looking at open access ways to do that. Head of Membership Russell Gill added that the society was working with people from within the organisation, as well as with independent consultants to analyse new ways of engaging members.