To grow the co-operative movement, we need to show – not tell

Richard Brooks How can we spread the word about co-operation and continue to grow the movement? For it to thrive, the products, services and way of doing business...

Richard Brooks
Richard Brooks

How can we spread the word about co-operation and continue to grow the movement? For it to thrive, the products, services and way of doing business must remain attractive to entice those outside its membership. 

But, over time, this needs to translate into new members with an enthusiasm to engage with the co-operative principles. Enlarging the co-operative sphere of influence and demonstrating that it is a force for good has never been so important. Perhaps rather than talking about co-operation, the way forward is to let people experience it.

Three of the seven principles could be seen as opportunities to engage with non-members; education, training and concern for community are some of the best parts of co-operation that could be experienced by non-members.

Co-operatives in the UK transact business worth hundreds of millions of pounds with their non-co-op suppliers, funders and contractors. This day-to-day engagement is an opportunity to demonstrate values and principles so that these suppliers and their employees also “feel the co-operation”.

Successful businesses very much want to satisfy their customers, whatever their ultimate motivation. But a truer picture of what drives a business underneath can be built by seeing how that business treats its supply chain. There have been high-profile examples – particularly in the retail sector – of beating down suppliers on price, which causes tensions and damage to local supply chains.

The co-operative world lends itself to a ‘collaborative’ and ‘partnering’ supply chain approach.

Partnering describes a relationship between the supplier and customer where their interests are aligned as far as possible to help them work together. A good example is the construction industry, where a traditional approach to contracting (the ‘who has the biggest stick wins’) has cost the economy dearly. A partnering approach in that industry is gradually becoming more prevalent where a “spirit of mutual trust and co-operation” (the first line from one of the construction partnering contracts) bears fruit, with projects more often coming in on time and on budget.

A collaborative approach is about making your suppliers (who might be competing with each other) work together to help you meet your aims. For example, we were recently appointed to a legal panel where the clients made all the different law firms collaborate. The firms worked together to provide training and develop offer, tracking and spend analysis information. This benefited the client and panel firms who did not have to provide duplicate training or information systems.

So what does partnering or collaboration look like in the co-op world? One social housing co-op for whom we act is passionate about tackling worklessness. It works in partnership with its supply chain to provide employment and training opportunities for people who are not in education, training or employment and this is addressed in its supply contracts – it is more than just words. Co-operatives can and do partner with their supply chain or make their suppliers collaborate to create environmental benefits, promote social inclusion or respond to whatever the local area needs to create a flourishing co-op economy.

Co-operative areas of operation are often focused on particular communities or regions. This area focus can allow sophisticated approaches to the measurement of local impact – both of the co-operative itself and its supply chain spend. Being able to demonstrate the difference that living and working in co-operation makes will increase understanding of the benefits of co-operation.

The challenge here is to ensure that co-operatives remain outwardly focused on the communities they serve to attract new members who can see and live the co-operative advantage. If co-operatives can harness not only their own operations, but those of their supply chain partners and collaborators too, as the force for good, the sector will be using all of its tools to attract new members and grow.

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