A new future: What next for the Co-operative College?

We speak with Nina Valvi, new head of business development, about the College’s past and future – and how Olympic training prepared her for a career in co-ops

Nina Valvi was born and raised in Athens, Greece, and has spent the past decade working in the UK charity and non-profit sectors – most recently with National Museums Liverpool. “I have two completely different degrees,” she says, “one in clinical psychology and one in music performance. But I have always had a very business way of thinking. I’m good at finding new opportunities and developing relationships.” 

She formalised this with a master’s in business management, and used this to find ways museums and galleries could achieve financial sustainability – and rely less on precarious core funding. Then came the Co-operative College.

“Just before the pandemic I started to think about what I wanted to do next, I felt I had fulfilled my time in museums and galleries. At that point Mencap Liverpool and Sefton appointed me as a trustee, and I also started working with the Girl’s Network charity , which provides support in schools by appointing professionals like myself as a mentor to girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.” 

She had already been involved in local co-ops. “It’s mind blowing how many fantastic things people achieve within co-operatives,” she says. “When I realised the extent of it, I thought, ‘Oh! This is something I can see myself doing for a long time.’”

Related: What has happened to the Co-operative College?

She believes co-operative learning is more relevant than ever now the pandemic has left society looking for new ways to access learning. “I see the College as playing a very crucial role,” she says. “It could be a great ambassador for the movement, not only within co-ops but also to a wider audience. We need to reach wider communities, recruit more members and make people more passionate – and teach people why co-ops are important both now and in the future.”

Ms Valvi wants to talk with College members, partners and stakeholders to understand their needs and help shape the organisation’s future collaboratively. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so the challenges are changing if not every day at least weekly,” she adds. “I think in the long term we have to – like most organisations – become more agile. We have to adapt. We live in a changing world and change is never easy, it’s never a smooth ride. 

“But we’ve got an amazing team of experts and we have some valuable skills. Long-term, the future is exciting, and we have many different pathways ahead. There are so many things we can do – it’s a challenge but it’s also what makes it exciting. When it comes to collaboration or what we can do with other co-ops, I think we have only scratched the surface.”

With financial constraints to consider, she sees funding and business development as a balancing act. “If we don’t pay the bills, then we can’t do any of the amazing work that is helping people and organisations. We also need to do our homework, do our research. I’m very data driven.”

Ms Valvi highlights how, in the charity sector, she saw many smaller organisations overstretch by saying yes to everything, “because people are so passionate and dedicated, they don’t want to feel they are letting people down by saying no”.

“My role is not to put a break on activity, but to re-frame it and remind the College of some important questions every single time we commit to something. What’s our purpose? What are the benefits? Who are we helping and supporting?

“It’s important to remember that just because funding is there for a project, we don’t need to go after it – we do so only if we feel it will support us and our role within the sector.”

Ms Valvi joined the College at a difficult time in its story; Brexit, Covid-19 and a chequered financial history resulted in a full restructure in 2020, with seven full time staff members being made redundant, and five new part time roles created. “Everyone has been very welcoming and supportive,” she says. “The team did very well this past year developing our online delivery and providing technical support for events. And let’s not forget about projects and our international work. We’ve got a strong team.” 

It’s been a personal challenge, too. “I’ve never started a new job completely remotely, but it has been such a smooth transition. The College and co-ops in the wider movement have been very welcoming.”

She is joined by Alison Longden as new head of learning, but the College is still recruiting for a CEO. The organisation is currently operating on a four-day week, working from home, but phasing into a more mixed way of working. “I think there’s going to be some physical interaction and I think that’s going to be reflected in the way we deliver work as well. We will be agile, adaptive and flexible, because that’s what the new world needs; this also means we can reach communities and people anywhere in the world.”

So what can the co-operative movement do to support the College’s future? 

“Please have conversations with me. Tell me what your needs are. Tell me what support your co-op and your members need, what their mission and vision are and how we can help,” she says.

“Secondly, support the College, and I’m going to be very clear here: yes, I mean financially. But that can take many forms. It can be learning services, membership, core funding, project work, consultancy. On top of that, please help us reach communities and audiences, not only within the movement but beyond it, too. Our role as ambassadors for the movement is really very important.”

Ms Valvi also has a sporting past: she trained as a synchronised swimmer to Olympic level. “I did it up until my early 20s, but at that point I needed to make a decision about what I wanted to do long term. I do miss it, but I’m still very athletic and do crazy things like ultra marathons. 

“Synchronised swimming is a team sport. There’s camaraderie and collaboration, you need to rely on your team’s skills and strengths, and work something out together. Just like in a co-operative.”

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