Engaging with charities: lessons for successful partnerships

Practitioners heard about charity partnerships at the Central England Co-operative and the Co-op Group.

Are co-operative retailers engaging with charities in a different way from other businesses? And how can they make the most of these partnerships?

These questions were explored during a membership session at Co-operative UK’s Practitioners Forum in Manchester, where delegates heard about charity partnerships at the Central England Co-operative and the Co-op Group.

Stephanie Forrester and James Brindle from Central England Co-operative spoke about the society’s collaboration with Dementia UK, their charity partner for 2017-2020.

During the first two years of the partnership Central England has raised over £1.1m through donations and the carrier bag levy. Employee engagement also improved with staff being able to get involved in various fundraising events throughout the partnership period. Colleagues received dementia training to be able to better support members and customers.

The society decided to support the charity for three years to ensure staff remained engaged for the full period, deciding that five year partnerships were too long.

Regular communication between the society and the charity partner is key to achieving a successful relationship, explained Mr Brindle. In addition to its three-year partnership with Dementia UK, the Central England Co-operative also collects items for food banks all year round, hosts Macmillan coffee mornings and has a community dividend fund to support smaller local charities.

At the Co-op Group choosing a charity partner is a process that involves carrying financial and ethical checks to ensure the charity supported is financially stable and fits in with the organisation’s values and principles. They speak to grassroots people, meet supporters and volunteers and approach previous partners. Charities also need to be able to provide legacy, resonate with the Co-op’s membership and engage colleagues.

In October the Group announced it would be working with Mind in England and Wales, SAMH in Scotland and Inspire in Northern Ireland to tackle mental wellbeing for its colleagues and communities across the UK.

As part of the process, the Co-op works with charity partners to discuss their vision and define a timescale.

If other businesses just hand out the cash, the Co-op says it seeks to involve its charity partners throughout the whole duration of the partnership.

Community engagement is the number two objective for store managers at the Group. And dementia trained staff are better prepared to identify people in need of assistance and notice when regular customers do not show up one day. Community engagement manager Giles Hall explained how a Co-op staff member was able to identify the daughter of a customer who had dementia based on the products she purchased, the same her mother would order every day in store.

“Charities appreciate that the Co-op goes the extra mile, that it’s genuine and we are doing it for a reason. They realise they are not just getting money but help to provide a service to those people for whom they exist,” said Mr Hall.

Other co-ops attending the session shared their experience working with charity partners.

The Channel Islands Co-operative, for example, supports over 280 charities over a year while Chelmsford Star selects a charity of the year and allocates additional small funds to each store to back local causes. Colleagues are also able to vote for the charity of the year to help them engage in the fundraising efforts.

Participants suggested launching a national campaign for all co-ops to help tackle major issues affecting their communities.