Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Co-ops are ‘punching below their weight’...

So said Dame Pauline Green, chair of the International Co-operative Alliance, at the excellent Futures North event recently.

The co-operative economy is equal to the 10th biggest economy of any country, it employs more people than all the private multinational companies combined, it wasn’t hit by the collapse of the financial markets, its led reforms and legislation that have changed the world so that commerce is conducted for the better, it serves more than half the people on the planet, (link here
and here for more)... And I agree with her.

The default position for any enterprise in the UK is for it to be privately owned: “be your own boss, make as much money as you can/like” – the education system and the media in the UK is set up to actively discourage the co-operative business model: the heroic entrepreneur is celebrated above that of the community or those who have taken shared responsibility and supported each other as a community of entrepreneurs; (want proof? – name 3 private entrepreneurs, pretty easy; now name 3 co-operative entrepreneurs...)
As such, we’re not taken seriously – and given our size in the global economy, it’s easy to see why Pauline is as frustrated as she is.

And the solution is actually pretty straightforward: all co-ops need to do is to show off more. Take every opportunity presented to get in the media, ask to speak at local schools and colleges, infiltrate business networks, educate your customers and suppliers... these things don’t have to be expensive or time consuming.

And maybe, given that as a movement we already measure our co-operative difference and impact through the CESPIs toolkit, we should add another measure – ‘what has your co-op done this year to promote co-ops’ as a way to challenge and encourage us to take more self-responsibility (a defining co-op value), and not simply rely on others to take the initiative so that we can start to punch our weight and contribute to a greater and faster impact in the changing of our economies and communities for the better.


  1. Mainstream business media is largely uninterested in co-operatives because we don't feature in the "market", i.e. investors can't make money from trading shares in cooperatives.

    The comment on punching below our weight that I carry with me was from someone at St. Lukes (employee owned ad agency) when I was pitching membership of Co-operatives UK to them some years ago:

    "If the Co-operative Party is so influential in Parliament [it had 30 MPs at the time] then why don't they make more pro-cooperative legislation happen?" Fair comment, actually.

    In relation to the investor-owned business sector cooperatives are tiny. The number of new cooperatives being created is infinitessimal in comparison with conventional start-ups. Although things are changing on this front, it is very slow, and some of the ideas that were being discussed internally at Co-operatives UK 5 years ago have still not seen the light of day. We need to make the creation of cooperatives much simpler and more straightforward.

    I could go on...

  2. I think one of the problems is that coops think they do not have to do any marketing as their customers are 'captured' members. They are competitive through this saving but too often market too little and are seen to be punching below their weight.

  3. Graham is right. In general, the business media do not see co-operatives as mainstream as there is no share dealing. The media however, is covering information about co-operatives more and more as their performance increases and their 'positioning' becomes clearer.

    All of us would like to see the co-operative alternative covered more by the media, but put simply you need to make news, to be in the news.