Practical co-operation: Lessons from this year’s Practitioners Forum

Sessions including marketing and social media, boardroom diversity and the cost of living crisis

Co-operatives UK’s annual Practitioners Forum was held in Manchester at the end of November, bringing together people working in co-op businesses for a day of training and development. Organisers ran 20 sessions across five specialist forums, covering membership, governance, finance, HR and communications.

With impacts from Brexit, Covid-19 and the cost of living crises still buffeting businesses, many of the sessions looked at how co-ops can support and engage members, colleagues and communities at a time when they may be facing huge financial, social and health challenges. 

Trainer and consultant Sue Froggatt looked at how to go beyond transactional relationships with members, to engage them as owners of their co-operative and encourage them to be involved in governance activities. And attendees heard updates on data protection, employment law and accounts and financial reporting, plus legal updates from Anthony Collins Solicitors.

In a very practical communications forum, Tony Ball (Co-op Group) looked into the art of creating successful email campaigns, while former journalist Dan Slee walked through how to produce successful marketing campaigns – and navigate the social media maze. 

Related: Communicating the co-op difference – Key tips from Singapore

Slee stressed the importance of data when planning social media strategies, quoting W Edwards Denning: “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”. And he highlighted how social media “isn’t just a young person’s game, it’s a majority pastime”, although where you find different people changes. 

“Over 55s will be on platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor,” he said, adding that it is a misconception that Tiktok is only used by young people, evidenced by the platform’s sponsoring of events such as the Euros and Six Nations, mostly attended by over 25s.

There is also a difference in why platforms are used, he said. “There’s a public versus private split. Facebook vs Messenger. Instagram vs Instagram messenger. Younger people use social media to talk to friends and communicate in the same way people born in the 70s and earlier would use the landline.”

He advised co-ops to think about what will trigger people to engage with content, highlighting marketing expert Prof. Jonah Berger’s six reasons that people share content: social currency (they’ll look good); triggers (it’s every day); emotional performance (does it make you feel something?); public (is it open and accessible?); practical value (does it help?); and storytelling. Storytelling is the key, he added. Successful campaigns have an 80/20 split between storytelling and calls to action. 

“The secret sauce to all this is algorithms and good content,” Slee said, “and algorithms don’t like links that take you off a site – so they’ll show it less often.” A workaround for this, he said, is to put any link as the first comment under a post. 

“Vary the content, don’t repeat things, even images. And include video content as much as you can. Universal content is over. Make something bespoke for different platforms.”

Diversity in the boardroom was another key theme. The lack of young people in boardrooms is an issue plaguing most co-ops – but there is a clear business case for including people under 30 in governance, according to Ali Wilson. 

Wilson is a comedian, producer and artist, currently working as an assistant producer at the BBC. She is also vice-chair of Manchester’s Contact Theatre, which has a commitment to having 50% of people on the board aged under 30. The chair is Junior Akinola, who, when he was elected, became the youngest chair of any major performing arts venue in the UK. 

The organisation made the decision to actively include young people because Contact has a focus on skill building, and “if they are everywhere in the building, they need to be everywhere in the organisation, including being present at highest levels of governance,” Wilson said. “But young people are also on the board because they are the future. Whether or not your co-op works with young people, youth culture is culture, not a group to be kept at arm’s length.”

Young people seeing themselves represented at board level has resulted in a culture where young people feel valued and their voices are heard, Wilson added. “Our lives are most similar to those of the youth we serve. And because young board members don’t come from a corporate background, they don’t have jargon to hand, and ask questions directly. We’re not interested in leaving people out of the discussions just because they don’t know the lingo.”

At contact, everyone who joins the board receives training, regardless of age, and there is a mentoring budget available to trustees. The organisation has also adapted its understanding of ‘expertise’: “Young people are experts in other areas, like resilience on a low income, freelance pay, how to juggle multiple jobs and different time pressures,” Wilson said. “If your co-op isn’t willing to bring young people onto your board, ask yourself why. Look at your board. The majority of directors, even in co-ops, are white, middle aged and middle class. Nothing will change if nothing is done.”

Related: Decent work, diversity and climate on the agenda at UK co-op housing conference

Osaro Otobo, deputy chair of the British Youth Council shared how the organisation brings young people together to find their voice and improve the lives of young people. She shared her own early board experiences – “some good, some bad” – as a postgraduate trustee at her university. 

“I experienced racism at board level from another trustee, and also felt young people’s voices were not supported. They weren’t asked to write board papers, and weren’t trained.” In comparison, the British youth council is “truly youth led. Everyone is 16-25 when elected or appointed, and equality, diversity and inclusion is a top priority.”

She advised co-ops to “use clear and simple language through various mediums” when recruiting young board members and work with specialised charities, networks and groups that work with young people, including the British Youth Council and the Young Trustees movement. “Boards improve their decision making from having diverse perspectives, skills and experience in the room – this includes young people.”

This was echoed by Sue Johnson (Berwick Partners), who explored  the steps co-operatives can take to ensure board diversity. “We are all unique,” she said, “and often it’s the hidden things that are the most interesting. The unique skills, knowledge, experiences and perspectives – that’s where the richness is in terms of diversity.”