Co-op Group reviews funding for core co-op organisations

The society has traditionally supported these organisations through membership fees, subscriptions and memoranda of understanding

The Co-operative Group is reviewing its funding for core infrastructure organisations of the UK’s co-op movement. As the largest co-op in the UK, the society has traditionally supported these organisations through a combination of membership fees, subscriptions and memoranda of understanding.

Co-op Press is facing 100% cuts to unrestricted funds, and the Group no longer wishes to receive copies of the Co-op News magazine. Conversations are also taking place with other organisations. 

A communication from the Co-op Group to Co-operative Press, which publishes Co-op News, said the organisation “no longer see the value of a regular print journal that is internal to the movement and that, from 2021, we will cease funding this service and also cease providing other unrestricted funding to Co-op Press”.

The Group acknowledged that “there is a need for the movement to communicate effectively with stakeholders” and that there would still be a budget for this activity. It also suggested that the Press work with Co-operatives UK to design a “sustainable and fit-for-purpose” wider news and communications service.

Barbara Rainford, Co-operative Press chair, said: “We fully understand the Group’s need to review its spending and appreciate it is making significant internal savings, but they are just one of our organisational members. We are frustrated by how this decision was made, its timing, and the lack of communication with the independent societies.”

Throughout 2019, Co-op Press, Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative College, Co-operative Heritage Trust and Co-op Party worked together under the ‘New Force’ banner – prompted by the Group – to explore how best to work together to avoid duplication and ensure they provide what the UK movement needs to support it in the 21st century. 

Outcomes of this process included the More Than a Shop Podcast, the Welcome to the Movement Guide and combined savings of £100,000, but New Force came to a close in March 2020.

“The Co-op Group is totally committed to playing a leading role in the wider movement,” said Russell Gill, head of co-operative & local engagement at the Group. “We believe it is vital that our movement’s institutions are efficient, and relevant for the challenges and opportunities ahead. 

“We patiently supported Co-operatives UK, Co-op News, Co-operative College and others in exploring how they might work together more effectively through the New Force process and have been disappointed by the limited progress made. In particular, we believe that there is great potential for the movement to amplify its message of co-operation by bringing together the strengths and capacity which already exists in a number of organisations including Co-op News. Our hope remains that all concerned will work together co-operatively to develop a joined-up and revitalised approach which will reach new audiences and we remain committed to funding this important work.” 

During 2019, Co-operative Press undertook its own extensive strategy process – partly financed by the Group – which indicated its need to diversify income, develop its digital offering for members and grow its international membership.

“Although they have been delayed by Covid-19, each of these outcomes is being implemented,” said Ms Rainford. “Over the last financial year, the proportion of the Group’s contribution to Co-op Press has been reduced by 22% through diversification of income; our new website and digital communications strategy are launching this autumn; and our pioneering organisational member offer for international partners is commencing before the end of the year.

“We want to reassure members and readers that each of these initiatives is being developed ahead of our 150th anniversary year in 2021, to ensure Co-op News continues to be relevant, efficient and effective in how it disseminates information about and educates the co-operative movement (principle 5) and co-operates among co-operatives (principle 6).  

The Group’s announcement follows a motion, supported by the Board and approved by members at the Co-op Group AGM in May, that called on the Board and the National Members’ Council “to confirm their ongoing support for the organisational infrastructure necessary for a growing and thriving co-operative economy”, including the provision of independent news and comment, co-operative education and training, heritage and international development work, as well as policy, finance, legal and governance advice.

Russell Gill added: “Our ambition is to work with others to energise the co-operative movement, in a way which builds on the successes of previous generations of co-operators who established such firm foundations, whilst also learning from other more recent movements whose impact and relevance, especially amongst the young, provides lessons for us all.”

“Through its expert independent journalism, Co-op News offers a unique service that is beyond the scope of our sister infrastructure organisations,” said Co-op News executive editor, Rebecca Harvey. “Co-operatives UK should rightly be a voice for UK co-ops, for example, but its scope does not cover independent reportage on the co-operative movement.

“We continue to have productive conversations with Co-operatives UK, and are committed to collaborating on movement-wide initiatives that bring co-operatives and co-operators together. We also look forward to making the case for Co-op News’ ongoing role in supporting the local, national and international co-operative movements.”  

Co-operatives UK’s head of membership, John Atherton, said: “These are extraordinary times and we are acutely aware of the commercial pressures faced by many of our members, large and small. Co-operatives UK is also aware of the need to look at our financial dependency on the Co-op Group; a reduction in the overall reliance on retail society subscriptions is an important element of our current three-year strategy. We have made good progress but the Co-op Group’s contribution still remains substantial and significant.”

He added: “I know this is a blow for Co-op News. Processing the information can’t be easy, but the focus now has to be on working together to navigate our way through what will be a challenging period. We’re committed to working with Co-op News, the Co-op Group and others to find solutions that work for all parties and their members. We do continue to see real value in effective movement-wide communication here in the UK – and a link to the wider, global network. It’s really important this function isn’t lost.”

The Co-operative College is having similar conversations. Nigel Todd, who chairs the College’s Board of Trustees, said: “The College is assessing the impact of the Group’s announcement through our future-facing Scenario Planning Group that will report shortly. Our view is that co-operative movements need independent media and education to celebrate and expand co-ops as well as cultivate the critical thinking that empowers co-operators to lead their co-operatives.”

Ms Harvey added: “Co-operatives are needed now, more than ever; and while the co-op movement has been rightly criticised for being too inward-looking, it is also important that co-operatives have a resource which they and their members can use to learn from, and about, other co-operatives and associated enterprises in the global co-op community.”