How do we measure co-operative growth?

Phil Beardmore looks at the measurements the co-op movement should use as it seeks to double its size

There is a widespread agreement that we need to double the size of the co-operative economy by 2030. NEF, the Co-op-Party, and the Labour Party have all committed to this aim.

Bur there are two questions that we need to resolve if we can really understand what it means to double the size of the co-operative economy.

  • How do we define and measure growth?
  • What does growth look like for different sectors of the co-operative movement?

The Cooperatives West Midlands AGM, held in Birmingham in June 2019, attempted to get to grips with these issues. Our discussion started with the co-operative values. What are the values that brought us to the co-op movement, to join co-operatives, to stay in co-operatives and make them thrive?  

The values that people cared about in that meeting were about community self-help, and solidarity. We also care about economics. We care about paying women on an equal basis as men. We care about paying a dividend to our members. We care about paying a fair price to our supply chain.

Some of the things we care about can be monetised, such as the gender pay gap or the affordability of rents charged by a housing co-operative. It’s also possible to put a monetary value on our social impact, through Social Return on Investment.

It’s important to do this. We all know that co-ops bring added economic, social and environmental value, and other business models don’t. But there are people whose view of the world is informed by mainstream economics – and they often need to see an accountancy-based argument in favour of this added value. 

People at our AGM were talking about doubling the amount of self-help, doubling the amount of solidarity, doubling the amount of co-operation among co-operatives.  

We need to think not only in terms of doubling the monetary indicators of the co-operative movement, but also in terms of doubling the size of our non-monetary economic, social and environmental impacts.

Here are examples of some of the ways in which we can measure impact using non-monetary methods:

  • The Active Wellbeing Society (TAWS) use storytelling as a technique to measure the impact of their work on people’s lives. They aim to capture the stories of 10,000 people who have benefitted from their activities.
  • Central England Co-operative has achieved the Carbon Trust standard for reducing their environmental impact.  

At Cooperatives West Midlands we are writing a Cooperative Development Strategy for the West Midlands. In our region there are many different types of co-operatives. Doubling our economic, social and environmental impact means different things to different co-operatives.  For example:

  • Doubling the number of homes owned and managed by housing co-operatives in the West Midlands is probably a realistic possibility by 2030.
  • For the retail co-operative sector, doubling the number of stores or turnover by 2030 is a tough call due to current trading conditions. But it might be possible for retail co-operatives to double the number of lasting friendships forged at member classes, or to double the amount of energy the co-operative uses from renewable sources.
  • The number of credit unions is falling so it is unrealistic to expect the credit union sector to double; however individual remaining credit unions could double the amount of money that they lend to members, and could demonstrate the social and local multiplier impact of making ethical and affordable loans to members who otherwise might be dependent on legalised loan sharks.

We need to make it a norm that co-operatives measure and report on our impact, and prove that we are living our values. This needs to be the co-operative difference – what makes us unique from private businesses, charities and social enterprises. We need to be able to show people, that because you buy from c-ooperatives, because you invest in co-operatives, because you give us your political support, then this is the impact we are able to achieve.