How co-operatives as social businesses can connect with their communities

After years of various campaigns and membership initiatives, the Co-operative Group is looking at its sole purpose and how to better connect with eight million shopper members. This...

After years of various campaigns and membership initiatives, the Co-operative Group is looking at its sole purpose and how to better connect with eight million shopper members. This purpose is set to be unveiled at the Group’s annual meeting in May. Co-operative News has spoken with some of the UK’s community-based organisations to find out their views on how a social business can truly connect with its communities.

Stephen Hamersley, chief executive, UK Community Foundations

The role of business in the community can often be overlooked. They can be a vital component in bringing communities together and providing a framework for improvement, but how do they do this and why is it important that they do?

The relationship between business and community is reciprocal. Each, in many ways, is dependent on the other. Businesses employ people from the local community, while employees live and work in the local community and contribute to the local economy, making each equally important to the other.

The result is that it is very much in the interests of business to acknowledge and embrace their responsibilities to support the local community and bring benefit to the wider area and workforce.

Businesses with specific social purposes are an excellent – and increasingly popular – way to explicitly highlight this reciprocal relationship.

Our research, outlined in the ‘Shine A Light’ report, has highlighted that there is an opportunity for local businesses to increase appreciation within communities of how they can give back and contribute locally to affect change on their doorstep. Communities want to be able to trust local businesses, to trust that social purpose businesses are truly committed to giving as much as they take from communities.

To engage the community, businesses should:

  • Offer clear – and two-way – communications to ensure the community is aware of your work and how to engage with you on community issues

  • Provide a forum for the community to articulate concerns, ideas, ambitions

  • Support the local area through sponsorship and partnerships that deliver benefit for the community and achieve key business aims

  • Use the skills of local people and draw from that talent pool in recruitment and other areas

  • Fund (directly or through a third party) key local charities or organisations who are delivering on the frontline of community issues

Greg Winfield, ventures associate, The Young Foundation

All too often, the business to community relationship is seen as nothing more than a channel to a transaction between one side and the other.

A person needs to buy something. The person goes to a business for something. The business exchanges money for something. The end.

But a business should not see itself as an island of transactional single-mindedness, cut off from the myriad needs of those living and working around it. Among the many interactions are so many opportunities for engagement, involvement and positive development that can lead to a thriving community instead of just a thriving business.

Through an in-depth and meaningful understanding of the local community, a business can connect with its customers in a way that brings benefits on both sides. In cities, we see examples such as business premises volunteering themselves as refuge points for those in danger of conflict on the streets to turn to and find shelter.

In rural areas we see local pubs taken over by communities expanding to create a hub that caters for the needs of otherwise isolated local people.

These aren’t, and shouldn’t be, simple philanthropic acts, occurring in isolation and ‘done to’ a community. They should form just one of the offerings from a multi-faceted business that seeks to embed itself in the community it serves, balancing profitability with social good to ensure a sustainable organisation that can consistently provide meaningful support to its community.

As the community is listened to and supported, no doubt their affinity for the business will grow too. The business thrives, and the community thrives too. That seems like a far fairer transaction.

What’s your view? How can a co-operative better connect with its communities?

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