Workers’ co-op brings its expertise to Harrow’s voluntary sector

Voluntary Action Harrow is a workers’ co-operative offering support to people in West London working in the community and social enterprise sector. Its four-strong team helps organisations fulfil...

Voluntary Action Harrow is a workers’ co-operative offering support to people in West London working in the community and social enterprise sector.

Its four-strong team helps organisations fulfil their potential in a wide variety of areas – from bidding for grants and marketing to research and website design. It also offers help with practical issues such as carrying out CRB checks and proper governance.

Set up in 2011, its aim is to develop a stronger not-for-profit sector in Harrow, and support the growth of a successful co-operative movement in West London, by providing information, training and guidance to others who are interested in the co-operative model as a way forward.

The operations director is Rachel Wright, who has years of experience in project management in the charity sector. She is responsible for everything from the organisation’s quality systems and governance to finance and operational business development.

“Three of us who are still here were employed by a local charity which had nine months of internal issues, which culminated in the CEO leaving in February 2011,” she says.

After this, the team were given redundancy notices and told the organisation was going to shut, prompting some of them to form a new group.

“We felt there was still a need for organisation of the voluntary sector and we had the skills and contacts locally,” says Ms Wright.

“We formed Voluntary Action Harrow and chose the worker co-op model because we worked well as a team and thought the more usual charity sector model of management could be a bit distant from workers’ level.”

Crucially, the group also admired the seven principles of the co-op movement – and what Ms Wright calls “the clarity of those values”.

“We had a lot of support from the Co-operative Hub which was really useful,” she adds. “It would have taken a lot longer without them. We also had support from Co-operatives UK and it was great to have someone to talk it through with and help us understand how co-ops work.”

The co-op formed in March 2011 and faced a daunting 12 months. “We had no money and no base for the first year – which we did unpaid because, after what had happened, we had a reputation to get back,” says Rachel. “Four years later we are still here and steadily increasing our income.”

Initially desk space was provided by another community organisation but now they have an office in a community building managed by the local council. Voluntary Action Harrow provides support services to many local voluntary and community organisations as well as public sector organisations.

Its clients include major charities like MIND and Age UK as well as dozens of smaller charities and local groups. It also has contracts with the local authority in Harrow in important areas such as children’s safeguarding and works with bodies like Harrow Community Action, a consortium working to strengthen the voluntary and community sector as well as the local Voluntary and Community Sector Forum.

Public health is another key area of expertise and the team’s remit has included training and advice on the re-emergence of tuberculosis as a major health problem in West London.

Rachel says: “Harrow is in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of London. We are seen as a quite a well-off area but actually there are lots of pockets of deprivation and it is quite a challenge with hundreds of local voluntary and community organisations and over 700 registered charities.”

A member of Co-operatives UK, Voluntary Action Harrow tries to link as much as possible with the wider co-operative movement in London – although, according to Ms Wright, there is still a way to go in their part of London. “We have talked a lot to the co-operative movement in East London and places like Tower Hamlets where it is really thriving,” she says. “However, we are still trying to get things off the ground here but we are doing our best and plan to persevere.”

Their special training package for would-be co-ops includes help with legal structures and constitutions, best practices, policies and procedures and advice of the best resources to tap into as a co-op. Governance and accountability is another top priority for Voluntary Action Harrow.

“We have made sure our internal governance is quite tight because of where we came from and that all our processes are up and running and follow proper procedures on issues like confidentiality and financial prudence,” says Rachel. “We are also in the process of getting a PQASSO Quality Mark, and we do an evidence-based impact report every year to assess the number of people we have helped and how we have increased this.

“We have also supported others groups locally to improve governance issues and how they run their knowledge and skills around safeguarding and other areas.”

Volunteers regularly add to the full-time team and those who work on a regular basis over a longer period are given member status of the co-operative for as long as they are contributing.

Forthcoming initiatives include Beehive, aimed at helping young people in the area set up their own projects. Over the summer Voluntary Action Harrow is also holding a workshop on the theme of introducing the idea of co-ops, as well as emergency first aid and children and young people safeguarding training.

Another project is Pop Up Harrow, working with local organisations to identify micro-volunteer opportunities to the Team London Volunteering website, delivering workshops, offering project support and promoting micro-volunteer opportunities which enable people to offer one-off help for small amounts of time in the area.

Mas Wright says: “In the longer term we would like to offer a broader range of services to support groups around finance as well as grow our co-operative support and see a bigger co-operative movement in west London.

“For me, one of the best things about being a co-operative is being able to make decisions ourselves quickly and the fact those decisions are made by the people doing the work. I love the peer support. I also think, if we had been another structure, I would be in a CEO role and that does not appeal to me at all. I like our co-operative structure and I like working as a team.”

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