There is not one single model that represents all co-operatives. They can be set up in different ways depending upon what works for the members. There are, however, common themes that make co-operatives particularly attractive to women. Co-operatives are all based around the principal of collaboration and on the firm democratic principal of one member one vote. Membership is the lifeblood of all co-operatives, with members coming together, through choice, towards a collective goal. They are not beholden to anybody, whether government or another business.
This is a very different model to that which has seen high streets banks bring the economy to the edge of collapse. It is a very different model than the one that puts profits above all else. Profits are important, of course. Businesses, and that includes co-operative businesses, have to make profits. But it is not the be all and end all. And it is what they do with the profits that counts. Profits, from co-operatives are shared amongst the members. This difference in approach is what makes the co-operative model attractive to women.
These are the bare facts but I want to add my personal perspective.
I am not a fan of The Big Society. That is to say that I am not a fan of The Big Society as espoused by David Cameron. His version seems to me to be little more than a cloak behind which the government can make cuts to public services and transfer ownership of assets, whether that be care homes or cleaning contracts, into private ownership. And I dislike the politicians and business leaders who exhort us to do more in our communities as volunteers and blame us for the failure of societies rather than looking to see how they can use their own wealth and influence to make a difference.
I have a friend who works delivering care to elderly people who prefer to live at home than go into residential care but who need extra support. It is not uncommon for her to have just 15 minutes with an old person to make a meal, administer medicine, help with washing and dressing and complete a log of her visit. Now, the Big Society would have us all volunteer to visit these elderly residents, which is all well and good – yes, we should. But I would have more sympathy with David Cameron if his government put adequate funds into the provision of services so that the old folk had more than just 15 minutes from a qualified carer. Volunteers should be additional to adequate public provision of service not a free replacement for them.
I know that there are strains on the public purse but the bankers that caused the problem are still drawing huge salaries and claiming massive bonuses. I would have more faith in David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society if, amongst other things, government made sure that the bankers paid their dues and businesses were made to pay taxes in the UK for trading taking place in the UK, rather than squirrelling the assets offshore.
The idea of a big society, though, is a sound one. We should all be active citizens and support our communities however and wherever we can but this should be in addition to the adequate provision of public services not instead of. And the idea isn’t a new one. Co-operatives have long operated to serve and support the community. The first consumer cooperative may have been founded as long ago as 1761, , when weavers in Fenwick, East Ayrshire took a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers’ Society.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about Social Enterprise and, relatively speaking, a large amount of grant funding available to support such endeavours. The grant culture is one with which I have been unfamiliar until the last few years. Up until now my businesses have been entrepreneurial and self-financing. I have had little need of bank support or outside investment and no requirement for grants. I find the grant culture perplexing and unsatisfactory. It has led to a complacency in some organisations as, by virtue being grant maintained, they have not had to look at their service and whether anyone really needs it in the way that it is being delivered. It has led to dependency in others, with alternative sources of finance being ignored. And it has bred lots of very small organisations with lots of duplicated, expensive administration and limited long term viability. There is a role for grant funding to kick start a process, the3rdimagazine Fair Comment project has benefited from a very small local council grant in this regard. Some services cannot survive without long-term financial support, I do accept that basic premise, but certainly not as many as are currently started and propped up.
Compared to grant funding, I feel that the co-operative model is a far better one in many circumstances. Rather than having an idea and going to the public purse for a grant, a co-opearative looks for support from within it’s community. Rather than looking for someone else to solve the problem a co-operative looks to the community to solve the problem. It is a true saying that, “wherever you find the problem you will also find the solution.”
Using the3rdimagazine as an example, we are creating a community of women with common purpose; to change the way the world does business with women as the agents of economic and societal change. If the community doesn’t have common purpose or doesn’t see the3rdimagazine as a way that can be achieved, then membership will founder and the business will fold. That is the way I think it should be. For me this is not vanity publishing. It is about building value not equity. It is a way of helping women to help ourselves. Rather than being supported by public grants or sponsored by big corporates, we can do this for ourselves.
Another buzz-phrase at the moment is Crowd Funding. From Wikipedia “Crowd funding describes the collective cooperation by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations…..giving none of the contributors a future stake or monetary reward of any kind” Collective co-operation then, without reward. I’m sure that it has it’s place in raising donations but when it comes to business, I prefer the co-operative business model – collective co-operation PLUS ownership and PLUS reward.
And finally to self-interest. A co-operative business brings a community together in order to gain benefits for all stakeholders beyond those which they could each expect through individual action. But there can and should be individual benefits. This can be in financial terms but also in personal development through involvement in a different business and with different people. To use the3rdimagazine again, the term I prefer is INVESTMENT MARKETING. I have lost count of the number of people who have said that they struggle to get press coverage and media exposure for their business. By creating a member owned, member driven magazine we have created our our publicity platform. So investing in the community offers a direct marketing outlet for the businesses of members.
So building a community to support the community from within the community – a perfect co-operative model.