On the art of asking questions

I was at the AGM last weekend of a community-based cooperative I’m a member of, one that is steered by a small group of volunteer directors. 2015’s trading results were not, to be blunt, great and as a result the balance sheet looked less perky than it might have done (although more positively we were advised that sales since January have been satisfactorily above forecast).

I thought the chair and directors did a good job in briefing members (there were about fifty of us present) and in answering the questions. I raised a couple of points, one on the current strength of the board and one on staffing costs. Both questions I thought needed to be asked, but I hoped when I raised them that our directors didn’t think that I was criticising their hard (and unpaid) work on our behalf.

Directors have responsibilities to their members.  But in a well-run cooperative members have duties and responsibilities too: among other things, to read the accounts and the directors’ reports carefully and not to be frightened of asking for more information.

Without an actively engaged membership, a coop is already on the path to decay. Members: ask those difficult questions!  Directors: welcome those difficult questions!


The road to Hastings Pier

The growth in the number of community shares issues has led more community ventures to decide to incorporate themselves as ‘bencoms’ (societies for the benefit of the community) under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act rather than as companies limited by guarantee (CLGs), traditionally the usual route which many not-for-profits chose.  Bencoms can raise money from supporters as withdrawable member share  capital, something that’s not available for  CLGs.

But there’s lots of quirks about Industrial and Provident Societies regulation, and one is that bencoms cannot at the moment become registered charities with the Charity Commission.  They can be charities, but they can’t be registered charities.  (I’m talking about England and Wales here. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own regulators for charities, but for the moment I’m trying to keep this simple.)

So charitable bencoms instead apply to HM Revenue and Customs to have their charitable objects recognised and to be able to benefit from all the usual tax concessions.  They’re known as exempt charities.

What happens when a community initiative set up as a company limited by guarantee and already with registered charity status wants to hold a community share issue?   It has to change to be a bencom, of course, but what happens if it does so to its status as a charity?  Well, thanks to Hastings Pier Charity which has just done exactly this, we now know the answer. My article about this issue went up yesterday on the Guardian’s social enterprise webpages.


Can coops save the local press?

What are we going to do about the dire plight of local newspapers?   As I mention today in a piece posted in The Guardian’s social enterprise site my own union the National Union of Journalists has been talking of savage cuts in both the number of local newspaper offices and the number of journalists working in them.  The local press is now a ‘war zone’, according to one NUJ official.

You can argue that strong local newspapers with professional journalists who know their patch and know how to find out what’s going on are a necessary part of every thriving community  – as essential, say, as the much-loved pub or the local shop.  So, just as communities are increasingly looking to cooperative options as ways to come together to save their pubs and shops, should they also be exploring cooperative options for local media?

As you’ll see if you click through to my piece, Dave Boyle has been doing some interesting work in this area as part of a Co-ops UK and Carnegie UK project.  Dave’s report Good News is well worth a look.

Incidentally, when researching the piece I was intrigued to see a passing mention in Good News of a fascinating if short-lived 1930s venture in Bristol.  The Bristol Evening Post was launched in 1932 after a public share issue, to provide an independent alternative to the established Bristol newspaper owned by Lord Rothermere. (There’s a small post about it on Wikipedia.)  So perhaps there really are no new ideas under the sun…