As an organisation run for and by its members, people are at the heart of a co-operative. So it’s important to address the big questions about people as you get started.
Who are the members?
The first question a co-operative needs to ask is who will its members be?
If the members are going to be the workers, then you are setting up a worker co-operative, in which the workers make the decisions, do the work and benefit from the co-operative.
Worker co-operatives – such as Birmingham Bike Foundry – fit with many people’s ideas of a co-operative: one where the people who do the work are rewarded with control, a share of their profits and decent work.
For many student co-operatives, though, the members are most likely to be the users rather than the workers: the people who use and shop at the food co-operative, the people who live in the housing co-operative, the people who buy from the furniture re-use co-operative . . .
Regardless of whether you’re thinking about a worker- or user-owned co-operative – or a mix of the two – it’s vital to involve and engage with people, to get them involved in the new venture.
This is especially true of those like a food co-operative or re-use co-operative that relies on volunteers to organise deliveries or staff a shop.
How can you engage people?
The second question, then, is how can you encourage people to participate in the co-operative?
There are a few things that might inspire your fellow students to get involved.
- Save money. Apples from a food co-operative, housing co-operative rent, a re-conditioned bike or piece of used furniture are all likely to be cheaper than conventional alternatives. That alone ought to encourage involvement.
- Take control. You do not simply want people out to save money. Co-operatives give people the opportunity to take control of their lives instead of being at the mercy of landlords or supermarkets – a great motivator for frustrated fellow students.
- Experience responsibility. Setting up and running a co-operative is a genuine – and rare – chance to get direct experience of running an organisation, campaigning, budgeting and other valuable skills.
- Make a difference. Co-operatives aren’t just democratic organisations. Depending on what they do, they often work to reduce environmental impact, source locally or promote other forms of sustainability that its members want. Your co-op is a chance for students to bring about the kinds of changes they want to see.
- Do things differently. Ultimately, setting up a co-operative is a way to do things differently, to challenge conventional approaches to housing or food, for example. What self-respecting student wouldn’t want to do that?
How will you organise the co-operative?
The third question is, how will you organise it? Whilst co-operatives don’t necessarily need to take a legal form – and being legal means there is additional paperwork to be done – there are benefits to being legally constituted.
The biggest benefit comes when there are significant sums of money at stake and things go wrong: having a legal form ensures that no individuals are liable for any financial problem; instead it’s the co-operative as a corporate body that is liable.
This may not matter too much for a food co-operative, but if there is housing or premises involved then a legal model may be wise.
There are various different legal models that co-operatives can take – a company limited by guarantee or Industrial and Provident Society for example. On this it is best to get specialist advice. There are co-operative business development advisors across the UK, though the simplest point of contact is through the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, which provides free advice to new start co-operatives [www.co-operative.coop/enterprisehub].
Once you’ve worked out your idea, who will be involved and how you’ll be organised, it’s time to think about money.
Or go straight to STEP THREE: the money