Ed Mayo blogged recently about how he saw charities and co-ops being able to learn more from each other than is traditionally thought (after all: charities are based on philanthropic gifts and a desire to help out other people, whereas co-ops are based on an ethos of mutual self-help through economic trading).
And I was interested in what he had to say because I've also often thought that many other movements and sectors are more aligned to co-ops than might appear at first glance (for example - trade unions; but more on that later...).
But as much as I like Ed (after all, he did buy me a round of whiskey after I called him out at a conference he was chairing!), I can't help but feel he only scratched the surface - and I think that co-ops and charities are much more aligned with each other in more fundamental ways that he argued in his piece.
Ed pointed to 3 areas that related to how many charities are seeking to encourage more open memberships and participatory governance (both principle tenants of co-ops), and exploring 'social investment'. But these could equally apply to many other types of organisations within the wider and broader social enterprise movement.
Sorry Ed, but I have an idea that co-ops and charities are much more closely related, and at fundamental levels:
Firstly, lets look in general terms, starting with the values that define co-ops -
- self-help, self-responsibility - internal to co-ops and their members, these are both things that charities would agree that they try to encourage and nurture within the people they support
- democracy - as Ed highlights in his blog, participatory governance is something that's a growing trend amongst charities
- equality and equity - are both enshrined in charity law to ensure that charities support people and communities in a transparent and fair way, regardless of circumstance
- solidarity - it's extremely rate to find a charity that isn't working collaboratively with other charities, or part of bodies such as the ncvo (the charities' counterpart to CooperativesUK)
And going on from that, lets then look at the principles through which co-ops enact these values -
- voluntary and open membership - charities offer support without any condition of a person being a member, in much the same way as many co-ops
- democratic member control - membership charities have AGMs and other governance functions that mean their Trustees remain accountable to the members
- member economic participation - OK, so you got me on this one. This is pretty much co-ops only (although I do know of lots of co-ops where members aren't engaged economically with what their co-op does...)
- autonomy and independence - just like co-ops, charities are required by law to be free from any undue control or influence over them by means of corporate membership or private ownership
- education, training, and information - just as co-ops need to ensure their members are supported to be able to fully discharge their responsibilities of being such, so charities also need to be offering the same
- Concern for community - a principle of co-ops, this is a mandatory expectation on charities through the public benefit reporting requirements that they're subject to
But the correlations don't stop there:
- There are examples of recognised co-ops also being registered charities (for example the Co-op College)
- The development and support needs of co-ops and charities are often the same
- Co-ops and charities are both recognised as being pillars of the wider social enterprise/Third/social sector (as typified by the mapping undertaken by the likes of Social Enterprise UK, and ncvo grouping them together)
- In manifesting and managing their values and principles, some co-ops have created separate charities
- Just as charities can trade, many co-ops can also access and be awarded grant funding
So - charities and co-ops are closer bed-fellows that some might care to admit. And that means that when we think about who we should look to for inspiration and models of practice to learn from, each shouldn't automatically dismiss the other.
And to end where I began - co-ops and unions are closer than many might think in many ways, and this is being recognised and furthered through memorandums of understanding being created between some of the federal bodies of each sector. So might we see similar agreements and commitments starting to appear between the bodies that represent, support, and advocate for charities and co-ops in the future..?