by Peter Couchman.
The history of co-ops is long and rich, with thousands of publications. However, it is filled with the what not the how of co-ops. It is filled with how many there were and how big they became, but not how they were developed. I hope that the new strategy will focus on the how.
Looking at how co-ops are developed gives fascinating insights. It shatters the English view that Rochdale is the only source of co-operative innovation. It played a vital role, but other equally rich development traditions emerged around the world. Raiffeisen, Schulze, Arizmendiarrieta, Desjardins and Coady to name but a few, all developed different approaches. Our challenge is to constantly ask ourselves the question: how can this wisdom be applied to the challenges and opportunities we face today and tomorrow?
One of those traditions is that which we have inherited at the Plunkett Foundation from our founder, Sir Horace Plunkett. He created over 1,000 co-ops in rural Ireland. More importantly, he had to adapt the approaches used in Britain to the world of conflict that he found himself in. An approach developed in a world of turbulent change is one that is likely to be of use to us today.
There are a number of key elements to the approach he developed.
The best way to achieve social change is through economic change
Co-operatives are an economic solution being applied to making the world a different place. Like Plunkett, we will engage with the political, social and cultural leaders and movements of our day, but be clear what our part of the solution is.
Co-operatives have to be supported to succeed in the technical, economic and social
To achieve the aspirations of the co-operative sector, support needs to be a blend of advice on how to operate in the business sector that each co-op wishes to, how to make the economic model of being a co-operative work and ensuring a co-op stays connected to its community and its social mission.
Co-operatives have to stay connected to the communities from which they have come
Of these three, staying connected is the one that we cannot take for granted. It needs significant support and constant refreshing.
How we attract people to form co-operatives is a vital part of the process
Too often, co-ops talk among themselves rather than reaching out. Our challenge is to inspire several generations at once who have lost all connection with the idea that a co-operative may be the solution to the problem they face.
Co-operative development is a team activity not the work of one heroic individual
None of us have all the answers by ourselves. The most effective forms of co-operative development are team based, drawing on the expertise and skills of a range of individuals and organisations.
Government has a role in the development of co-operatives, but it is a limited one
Sitting back and waiting for Government is not a strategy that works. We need to support what needs to be done ourselves and treat Government support as an added bonus.
The National Co-operative Development Strategy is a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between talking about the Co-operative Movement we would like to have and the lack of resources to help get us there. As such, it is vital that we focus on what it will take to make it happen. Only then will we have what Sir Horace called for over one hundred years ago: “the dawn of the practical.”
Peter Couchman is Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.