Member Pioneers: Connecting communities

What is the aim of the Co-op Group’s Member Pioneer scheme? Plus we meet two of the first recruits…

The Co-op Group is taking its commitment to local communities seriously – by recruiting its first Member Pioneers to “help make a difference to the people and places in communities across the UK”.

The aim is for Member Pioneers to connect people within their local community, bringing them together to start conversations, identify pressing issues and use the organisation’s reach and assets to make positive changes.

Leading the programme is Rebecca Birkbeck, director of community engagement, who recently joined the organisation from the Join In Trust, where as CEO she was responsible for building on the social legacy of London 2012 by getting more volunteers into local sport.

Rebecca Birkbeck, director of community engagement at the Co-op Group

“I’m enthused by all things community and excited to be leading on community activation at the Co-op,” she says.

“Community is central to the Co-op’s purpose – it’s what makes us different. We are putting the community at the heart of what we do, responding to what matters most to our members.”

The Member Pioneer scheme builds on the Group’s membership proposition, relaunched last year, which sees members get 5% back on own-brand purchases, with a further 1% going into a Local Community Fund to benefit local causes. In April the Group paid out £9m to over 4,000 good causes as a result of the first round of the scheme.

The Group recruited 60 Member Pioneers earlier this year – and is opening applications again on 10 August, covering 450 regions.

“The role of a Member Pioneer is to bring together other Co-op members to create a Local Community Plan – looking at how to meet local needs and then make it happen,” adds Ms Birkbeck.

“Our first Member Pioneers are already making a great impact in their local communities.

“These Pioneers, together with the Local Community Fund, will help to build relationships with causes that are meaningful to their local community, achieving local relevance and national significance.”

What is a member pioneer?

Member Pioneers ‘make connections in the communities around our food stores and funeral homes,’ says the Group, helping to get people talking about community issues and solutions – and then making them happen.

How often do they work?

The Group anticipates that each Member Pioneer will work between eight and 32 hours per month, receiving an hourly rate of reward of £7.61.

How are they supported?

Member Pioneers receive a full induction session and training, and have access to online resources. They can also connect with other Member Pioneers and receive support from the Group’s co-op engagement advisors.

Who can apply?

The Group is looking for good listeners who are organised and able to motivate people – and who are confident using social media to share success stories. Find out more at

Meet a Pioneer: Abimbola Oyeniyan, York

Abimbola Oyeniyan (top right) at the Chapelfields Community Garden

Why did you apply to be a member pioneer?
Being involved in the community comes naturally to me. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Getting this opportunity to build bridges between the Co-op and my local community is amazing.

How would you describe what you do?
I’m here to do my best to revive community spirit and make people understand that helping one another can make life easier. Being a Member Pioneer has given me more of a platform.

What have you been doing so far?
I know that the Co-op wants to do more to support and educate young people – with two young children, it’s a passion for me. I’ve become an official volunteer at my sons’ school and am planning to go into other schools to talk about Fairtrade. I’m also working with two other mums to get Chapelfields Community Garden off the ground – it’s an ideal place for local children to learn about growing fruit and vegetables and educate them about where food comes from. I’ve been in touch with Edible York, The Woodland Adventure Company and the Woodcraft Folk, a co-operative that’s been involved with our Co-op for a long time. We want to get as many people to work with us, then we can start to bring the community in.

Is there one group of people you would particularly like to work with more?
Chatting to Elsie, an elderly lady I met in our local store, about how the Co-op was the centre of her family’s life growing up, made me determined to do more to support older people. I’ve already been in touch with our Funeralcare business to see if they can work with the local care homes to better support dementia sufferers and their carers.

Meet a Pioneer: Justine Rae, Chester

Why did you apply to be a member pioneer?
I’ve always enjoyed working in the community. When I heard about the role with Co-op I jumped at the chance because I appreciate its ethics and values. Now I’m able to do my community work with extra support, making it much easier to connect with people.

How would you describe what you do?
When I’m describing to people what a Member Pioneer is I say that my role is to go beyond the money local causes receive through Co-op’s Local Community Fund. I want to help showcase the work our local causes are doing and get colleagues involved too.

What have you been doing so far?
There’s a famously independent high street in Hoole, near Chester. It’s supported and celebrated by a group of volunteers called Notting Hoole. In the past they’ve protested against the arrival of bigger retailers so I felt it was important to get them onside before the opening of a new Co-op store. Funnily enough I met Sue Mason, the chair of Notting Hoole, completely by accident. We were both attending a fundraiser at Eaton Hall in Ecclestone. Hopefully now we have that connection we can work together so that the store is embraced by the people of Hoole.

Is there one group of people you would particularly like to work with more?
I’m only 23 and haven’t met that many young people doing this kind of thing in my area. For me, spreading the word through social media is really important. I’ve set up a Twitter account [@JustineRae94] so I’ll be able to showcase my stuff to young people. I’m hoping to get more and more followers in the next few months.