New roles planned to ‘activate membership’ at the Co-op Group

But means the end of the Member Pioneer programme

The UK’s Co-op Group is considering a restructuring of its member engagement field team, replacing its 900 Member Pioneers with 61 new full-time equivalent Member Engagement Activators. 

This new role will “have the sole remit to connect, engage and support member-owners” in communities at a regional level, while “making a real difference in how people experience our Co-op in their community”.  

The Group says the move will support its ambition to grow membership from 5 million to 8 million active member-owners by 2030, but means the existing Member Pioneer programme, which was established in 2015, will end in July.

The current Member Pioneer programme comprises Member Pioneers, who are committed to around four hours of work a week, managed by a small number of Member Pioneer Co-ordinators (18 hours per week), who are now at risk of redundancy. 

A statement from the Group said the limitations of the current programme meant the organisation “could not broaden the scope to engage in important, broader membership activities”, and saw people frequently leaving the role. Member Pioneer Co-ordinators will be offered new Member Engagement Activator roles, which are designed to be delivered on a full-time basis, but with flexibility available. There will be special arrangements for particular geographic areas, such as the Scottish Highlands or the Isle of Man, and the new roles will also engage with independent societies and the wider movement.

The proposed change “emanates from our new approach to membership,” says Russell Gill, head of community delivery at the Co-op Group. “We’re moving from a position where effectively it was a binary ‘something for you, something for your community’ … to putting greater emphasis on other co-operative themes like ownership, participation and sustainability.”

Member Pioneers were recruited to drive that strong community agenda, he adds. “We have 900 people working a very short number of hours a week, who are essentially from the community, but who have done a stellar job bringing our work to life at a local community level.

“Through the programme, we invested over 110,000 hours a year in driving that community agenda, including 25,000 hours supporting local community funds and 15,000 hours supporting our community fridges, typically engaging around 62,000 people a month.

“But it was very focused on one aspect of membership, and the new membership proposition that Shirine [Khoury-Haq, CEO] and Kenyatte [Nelson, head of membership] talked about at the AGM is about looking at member value across economic value, social value and ownership value.”

This is a broader agenda, he says, which requires a greater capacity and time commitment than the current programme allows. 

The organisation is currently in the middle of a 45-day statutory consultation process with affected colleagues, and proposals may be subject to change, but Gill says the Group’s evolving approach to membership “has been a theme at many of the National Members’ Council meetings”. 

“At the last meeting, the [Council Members] got a particular responsibility to focus on how we show up at a local community level … but we weren’t able to talk in detail about the change to the Member Pioneer program because it involved colleagues and their jobs. We have, however, been engaging on a confidential basis with a subcommittee of the Senate to ensure that they were sighted on what we were doing, and they were able to feed in their thoughts and ideas in the process.” 

He acknowledges that “there are lots of people who are very sad at the impact this is having on some really dedicated and hardworking people. But I hope that people will also see that the model that we’re moving to is right for the future, in the way that the Pioneer model we’ve had previously had was right for the past.”

In a message to colleagues, Rebecca Birkbeck, director of community and member participation, thanked Member Pioneers “for their amazing contribution to our Co-op to date and for their continued support”. 

“They have always delivered what has been asked of them, to the very best of their ability and I am very proud of all we have achieved together over the last few years. This work has set the foundations for where we are now.

“We’re now entering a period of consultation, and we’ll update everyone on the proposals in July along with more information on our Social Value strategy. This is about understanding the things our member-owners care about and where we can empower them to make a difference; for themselves and their local community.”     

She added: “If you work closely with our Member Pioneer team, please show them kindness and bear in mind what they’re going through over the coming weeks.”