ICA2020: one way we could record the cooperative difference

I’ve been reading today a thought-provoking report, still in draft form, which the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) will be bringing out shortly: The Capital Conundrum for Co-operatives. And it has done its job: it’s provoked me to think.

Curiously, though, it hasn’t just got me thinking about cooperative-friendly capital instruments (always a favourite topic of mine). Instead, it’s made me think more broadly. And it’s made me wonder if the time is right to encourage the ICA to pioneer a ‘Global Cooperative Index’, one which measures just how well (or how badly) an individual cooperative enterprise is doing in meeting agreed international cooperative principles.

What defines a cooperative?  Not the legal structure: in Britain (and elsewhere in the world too) coop businesses nestle under all sorts of legislative frameworks. Not the capital structure, either: businesses which most people would accept as being within the cooperative family have developed all sorts of equity and quasi-equity financial instruments to meet their capitalization (or regulatory) requirements.

So it has to come down to something else: what Singapore’s Tan Suee Chieh and his colleague Chuin Ting Weber call in the ICA report ‘the cooperative spirit’. Or in other words how well these businesses really meet the essence of cooperation.  How well their business practice tallies with cooperative values and principles.

Recent years have seen businesses signing up for a whole range of Corporate Social Responsibility measures (I thinking of such things as Social Accountability International’s SA8000 standard, as well as the UN’s overarching Global Compact initiative). So what about a Global Cooperative Index, which I feel the urge to name ICA2020?

ICA2020, which would score cooperatives’ practice in a range of areas, would of course be a voluntary undertaking by cooperatives – although it would be good to think that there’d be some peer pressure to participate (and benchmarking is all the rage in business these days). So what would sort of things would ICA2020 monitor? Oh, you know: member engagement, the percentage of members voting in elections and attending meetings, employee satisfaction, employee understanding of cooperative principles, customer satisfaction, internal pay differentials (the lesser the better), the CEO’s ego quotient (the lesser the better, although I accept this is hard to measure), gender and diversity indices, socially responsible investment practice, the percentage of profits used for charitable or community purposes, average time taken in paying suppliers, all kinds of environmental indicators…

I think you get the idea.  And, you know what, it might just take off.

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The crisis facing the press – is there a cooperative solution?

The Financial Times runs an article today which calls into question the long-term future of one of Britain’s quality dailies, The Independent.

All journalists want to see as many newspapers thriving as possible, and the loss of the Indy would be serious indeed.  I have warm memories of the paper from the work it gave me when I was first starting in journalism more than 25 years ago. But my focus here today is on another quality daily, the Guardian (who incidentally have also over the years taken my work).

If I’m honest, I’d have to say that I’m cross with the Guardian. It is heavily promoting its Guardian Members scheme, inviting its readers to pay between £49 and £599 a year to support its work. ‘Members’ receive a range of incentives, including discounts on Guardian events. But the scheme has been established in such a way that these members – a group who by definition have identified themselves as committed supporters of the newspaper – are given no role in its governance or management.

I know that the Guardian did toy with an alternative plan, a cooperative one, which would have given reader-supporters a real stake in the business – one where membership actually meant something. But the Guardian chickened out. What a pity.

The press in Britain, both national and local, is in a serious plight and this should be of concern to us all. One way forward may very well be to explore cooperative ways to bring in readers (and their money). But such a way forward needs papers to give genuine power and responsibility – albeit shared with other stakeholders – to their readers.

Going out on a Thursday night, the coop way

There are plenty of ways to spend a Thursday evening in February: a trip to the cinema maybe, a few drinks in the local pub or just an hour or two in front of the television.

But I chose last night to spend my evening at the AGM of a local cooperative I’m a member of. It’s a community energy business which runs a small wind turbine in a farmer’s field up on the hillside near here and which also works locally to encourage more use of renewable energy.  It’s one of many similar community energy cooperatives which have got going in recent years – though the highly regrettable government cut-backs in the ‘feed-in tariffs’ for energy generation and the removal of tax breaks on investments in such cooperatives make the model very much harder to replicate in the future.

The AGM was a model of how a small cooperative with strong community roots handles its business. We met in a local social club. We had a comprehensive verbal report from one of the directors on the past year’s ups and downs. We scrutinised the accounts. We passed a motion making a small change to our constitution. We awarded ourselves as investors a modest interest payment. And we also agreed to donate £1400 to a local charity, to help towards the appeal for the Christmas flooding which has badly affected our community.

Good governance, strong democracy and a profitable business: the secrets of a successful coop. I felt afterwards that my Thursday evening had been well spent.

The responsibility not to forget the past

I blogged earlier today a story about a key figure, Joseph Greenwood, from the ‘first’ workers’ cooperative movement in Britain, at a time when these enterprises were known as productive cooperatives.

I need to bring you more up to date. A number of us with a background in (late 20th century) workers’ coops have been concerned for some time that key records from the upsurge of interest in Britain in workers’ cooperatives since the 1970s are in danger of being lost. We feel that the workers’ cooperative movement was (and remains) an important part of the wider cooperative movement and that it is vital for future researchers that primary documentation survives.

We have been working in recent months on detailed proposals for the project, for which we hope funding will be available.  We think we have strong bid, and a strong chance of success. There’s details about the Workers’ Cooperatives Archives Project up on the dedicated website workerscoopsarchive.wordpress.com. I hope you support this initiative.

Co-operative history lives yet!

Having written All Our Own Work last year, the book on early productive cooperatives where the cooperative pioneer Joseph Greenwood was the central figure, I’ve been delighted to get an email through which tells me that his grave in Hebden Bridge’s Sandy Gate cemetery has been restored.

The gravestone had toppled over on to its front, leaving the grave unidentified. That’s now been remedied. My photo shows members of CROWS (Countryside Rights of Way Service), itself a cooperative, hard at work.

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Joseph Greenwood is buried a very short distance from another important early co-operator, Jesse C. Gray.  Gray, originally employed at the Hebden Bridge fustian cooperative, went on to become the Co-operative Union’s General Secretary at a key time in the movement’s development. His grave is marked by a marble monument funded by the movement.

Greenwood’s and Gray’s graves are included on an e-trail of radical and cooperative Hebden Bridge, available for downloading as a mobile phone app from http://www.pennineheritage.org.uk/Pennine-Trails. The trail is also available in booklet form from the local Tourist Information Centre.