Last month, a £1m funding commitment towards co-operative development was announced by the Co-operative Bank, which will see Co-operatives UK delivering a variety of initiatives to develop and grow co-ops over a three-year period.
We ask co-operative development specialists from around the UK about about how and where they think the money should be spent – and what they want to see happen by the end of the project.
What areas of co-op development are being neglected? How and where should the Co-operative Bank’s money be spent?
Hilary Sudbury. CDA Co-ordinator, CDA (BRAVE Ltd):
There is no national co-operative development scheme in place currently so this scheme will hopefully provide specialist advice and guidance to new-start and existing co-operatives. Various initiatives, such as community shares initiatives, have access to Big Potential funding (although subject to a stringent application process) so I would like to see the priority for this scheme as the smaller scale local co-ops which impact their local economy and communities.
The co-operative relationships between members, especially worker co-op members. This is just as, if not more, important than the business basics like plans and budgets. The skills to advise on this are also rarer. This would be a critical area for investment. In terms of how it should be spent, there should be some transparent governance around it, with feedback from co-ops as well as development bodies.
Dave Boyle. Director, The Community Shares Company:
There’s been support for new start-ups, but anyone who has worked with groups knows that there’s a pre-start-up journey that involves meeting, talking and helping groups, way before they’ve raised a brass farthing or decided a legal structure.
There’s a risk here, as not every group will go forward, so I think there’s a role for de-risking with things like crowdfunding to make sure that money is focused on the likelier winner. However, web guides and tools can only go so far – a co-op gets formed by discussion and those helping such groups need to be engaged over time, and paid for that time.
Nathan Brown. Co-operative and Social Enterprise business advisor, Cooperantics:
Many areas of co-operative development are currently under resourced, but particularly pre-start and start-up support. Co-operative development bodies use reserves or, as in our case, time donated by worker members, to provide support and grow the movement – effectively cross-subsidising support from those pieces of paid work we get.
If work with pre-starts that leads to start-ups generated some fees from the programme we could better sustain that activity and grow the sector.
Dorothy Francis. CEO, Co-operative and Social Enterprise Development Agency (CaSE-da):
Part of the £1m could be used to strengthen and improve the support offered to co-operatives, especially those in the process of taking out a loan, by financing them to access their local Co-operative Development Agency for business mentoring. CDAs increasingly have to charge for services to survive and funds such as formerly offered by the Co-operative Enterprise Hub help aspiring co-operators to access vital support and mentoring. When loans are partnered with mentoring and support intended specifically for co-operatives this gives a greater chance of survival and lays the foundation for business longevity. Advice, support and training to all aspiring co-operatives, regardless of whether they are seeking loan finance, is the key.
Dave Hollings. Consultant/Director, Co-operative and Mutual Solutions:
Helping existing co-operatives to grow. The fund should focus on new start or existing co-operatives with a committed team of co-operators with a strong business idea.
I am pleased to say that in Scotland there is substantial backing of co-operative development, with CDS playing a key role. I anticipate a significant increase in interest in co-operative working – so it would be ideal if the Co-operative Bank’s support could be aligned to that of CDS, ideally helping both the start-up and growth of community co-operatives.
What three things would you like to see come out of this initiative after three years?
I would like this scheme to become a coherent national co-operative development scheme which has clear priorities in terms of its reach and impact and which is supported by the whole co-operative movement.
I would like it to strengthen the existing co-operative development expertise within co-operative development bodies by using their expertise to deliver the scheme.
Thirdly I would like the priorities, reach and impact of this scheme to be in line with the prospective national co-operative development strategy and not just the priorities of Co-operatives UK or the Co-operative Bank.
I would like to see some bigger and stronger co-operatives, rather than just more, and tools developed to enable best practice in collaborative and co-operative working.
‘What we think is needed’ is often a proxy for ‘what would be good for us’ as development specialists, so with that bias upfront, as specialists in community co-ops, we’d like to see support for early stage community co-ops. That’s the sector that offers the biggest bang for the buck and given that the fund doesn’t have enormous resources, there’s a real need to focus on what will drive the development of co-ops which will help grow the sector’s visibility and connect to the most people.
There are significant challenges to growing the worker co-op sector, obviously, but growing the front rank worker co-ops into successful household names to grow the co-operative economy seems to be a challenge beyond what a £1m fund can realistically be tasked with delivering.
I would like to see:
1. A clear demonstration of the Return On Investment achieved through co-op development to encourage future investment in support.
2. Interactive and self-sustaining tools for pre-starts that enable communities and individuals to reach a stage where they are clear about what they want to achieve so any extra resources or support backs groups likely to succeed.
3. A more connected co-op sector that collaborates to develop new and existing co-ops by providing peer support and contributing to meet the cost of on-the-ground support to grow the movement.
1. A dedicated support and mentoring package offered to co-operatives, especially in regards to those accessing loans. Essentially, a dedicated support service for everyone who wishes to explore the co-operative option.
2. Recognised and ongoing financial support for co-operative development agencies.
3. Development and retention of strong co-operatives contributing to the local economy.
An increase in the number of sustainable co-operative businesses. But the fund should avoid measuring success by the number of new starts – too often in the past this crude approach has led to large numbers of marginal, under-capitalised co-operatives with short lifespans.
The programme should be concerned with co-operatives that have the capacity to make a significant, long-term difference to the lives of their members and the communities they live in.
I would like to see greater emphasis placed on building a strong suite of online resources, which will help businesses understand their options. From there, they can progress to face-to-face support which should deliver added value. In addition, there should be greater promotion of collaboration between co-operatives and an equal emphasis placed on the launch of new co-operatives and the growth of existing ones.
- You can read what Claire Ebrey from Co-operatives UK tells us the funding will focus on by clicking here.