Education case study: Member engagement at Central England Co-operative

How the society is offering educational opportunities to its 330,000 members

When it comes to member engagement and education, Central England Co-op goes the extra mile.

Every single one of its 330,000 members has the chance to join a growing list of activities funded by the co-operative. This can include photography classes and learning all about wine, as well as singing in a choir and taking part in keep-fit classes. There is also Tai Chi, line dancing, lace-making, watercolour painting and other activities to bring the co-op closer to the community.

The society also organises historical and educational visits, often connected to the co-operative movement.

“Offering education and training to our members very much supports our co-operative values and principles,” says Caroline Maddox, engagement and public relations manager.

“It’s a way in which we can give back to our communities and help improve the lives of our members.

“We actively promote member classes and educational visits including healthy choices workshops, ethical challenges, computer related courses, keep fit and a lot more. It forms part of our purpose beyond profit. We also offer something for people who are not looking to learn a new skill, but just want to meet new people, such as our popular friendship and networking groups.”

Over the last two years, the society has measured its impact on communities using the SROI (social return on investment) method. It commissioned an external auditor to look at the social value of co-operative activities and the return provided by initiatives such as its community dividend, award-winning SENse to Aspire scheme and the local activities organised for members. The results are helping to build the members’ programme and engagement strategy.

They are regularly monitored and the latest SROI results are due to be published shortly.

“For each pound invested in particular projects and activities we generate an average social return of £23.15,” says Ms Maddox. “Overall, by offering training and educational activities, we help build loyalty, which in turn promotes economic participation. By creating a surplus, this helps us continue to deliver community-based activities whilst building sustainable communities.”

The society also employs a team of membership and community officers to help deliver the message of co-operation through a range of face-to-face activities focused on the co-op difference. They deliver educational workshops in schools and support membership & community councils in wider co-operative education.

“More recently we have been delivering a range of co-op masterclasses at key stage 4 & 5 (age 14-18),” explains Ms Maddox. “These one-day masterclasses enable young adults to learn about the co-operative as a legitimate and practical business model. Last year we also sponsored Kids Country’s Food and Farming day in Peterborough, where we interacted with over 7,000 under 11s at a one day event. Children participated in healthy choices and ethical challenges and took part in Fairtrade activities.”

The list of classes is tailor-made to the needs of Central England and its members. The society has an established membership and community strategy that is supported by a number of key themes: engaging young people; local environment and food poverty; health and wellbeing; member participation and education; and culture and recreation.

“Member classes need to fit under at least one of these key themes to be eligible for membership and community grant funding. Each member class is evaluated as to its popularity, effectiveness and financial viability,” says Ms Maddox.

“We have over 2,500 active members that participate in over 70 member classes. Every £1 we invest in a member class generates an average social return of £20.50.

“This is measured and calculated using member data and questionnaires that are attributed to financial outcomes. A member that participates in a class feels less isolated, more healthy and active. This then has a positive knock-on effect on the wider community and there is less demand on GPs as health improves.

“When you give somebody more confidence, better fitness or a new skill, there’s nearly always a positive knock-on effect. They in turn are likely to put more into the community and take less out. So, for every pound we spend, many more pounds may well be generated or saved.”