Weighing up the Co-operative difference


It is two years since the Co-operative Group announced its new purpose: “Championing a better way of doing business for you and your communities”. Now the Group is in its rebuild phase, David Smith reviews what we mean by self-help, and raises questions about localism and social justice.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies enable businesses to monitor and ensure compliance with legal and ethical standards. Companies can use CSR in contexts such as environment, individual need and community.

The danger of a general, scattergun approach is that it generates a feel-good factor without achieving meaningful impact.

For a co-operative, it makes sense to ask: what real difference are we trying to achieve with our purpose? How will we know that we have made that difference? If the co-op should promote initiatives that reflect co-operative principles, what would this – for example – look like in relation to loneliness or isolation and our joint campaign with the British Red Cross?

British Red Cross announced as Co-operative Group’s charity partner

Two examples show how a structured co-operative ‘seed corn’ approach can enhance CSR. A food-based approach to building community is slowly becoming a global movement. It started in America as Detroit Soup, but has recently popped up in Liverpool, Llandrindod and Rochdale.

The Men’s Shed’s movement is all about isolated people, perhaps bereaved and retired, coming together to make things with tools in a shared workshop. The Co-op would not only be giving communities money, but giving communities the mental tools of self- help that can last a hundred years.

It is important to have a clear purpose and strategy so results can be measured and evaluated. This in turn should make it easier to have UK-wide impact, by setting clear parameters that enable the business to be responsive at the local level.

With the determination of priorities at local level, are we at risk of producing an unmanaged and incoherent range of small- scale initiatives – which would be extremely difficult to evaluate in any meaningful way?

Executives need to know what success indicators are appropriate. Viewing our competitors, they may ask what is the difference between ourselves, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose? Sainsbury’s Charity of the Year programme, for instance, invites charities interested in being funded to alert local stores. The store selects a shortlist for a public vote.

So is the Group really achieving anything different from our competitors? How easily could they replicate our point of difference?

I suggest that we focus on particular sections of the community, or particular activities, which will reflect our overall aim. We need a clear strategic community purpose to counter the risk of well- intended fund-raising being frittered with limited short-term benefit.

Can we learn from Scottish public sector participatory budget exercises which arguably typify the scattergun approach: friends supporting each other’s projects; where activities can be peripheral and wasted money justified on the grounds that “this is what people voted for”?

With the determination of priorities at local level, are we at risk of producing an unmanaged and incoherent range of small- scale initiatives – which would be extremely difficult to evaluate in any meaningful way?

While the notion of ‘local connection’ and ‘community priorities’ flow from our purpose, it says nothing about the co-operative difference. It is also crucial that the Co-operative Group has a strategic purpose in its donations that promotes co-operation, social enterprise and co-production.

Asda, by contrast, is very clear about what it considers a good use of its money. It supports good causes provided they meet certain criteria, irrespective of charity status. Nor does one need to shop there to apply.

Two key questions emerge. What does local mean? The neighbourhood, or the part of a town, city or region? How ‘local’ and on what scale must charities or initiatives be? There are problems with local budgeting that need to be avoided, but part of the problem relates to how ‘local’ is defined. Second, could the USP of the Co-op’s approach be more than just the use of co-operative principles of organisation? Could it be a reflection of the historical roots of co-operation as a means of improving the position of disadvantaged communities, as it did in the industrial heartlands of the north? That means spelling out some social justice principles to guide what is donated to whom.

The task faced by the Co-operative becomes easier when we are clear about how funds raised locally will be used, and what are we seeking to achieve other than ‘doing good’.

The key to adding value and making real impact lie in the co-operative principles of partnership working, co-production and reciprocity with organisations in the community sector and beyond who share our values.

Our challenge will be to understand the value that will be added by working with people in organisations who share our values, and who are already seeking to build responsive, self-help and resilience for individuals and communities.

I believe the Co-op should have a philosophy that takes CSR beyond doing ‘social good’ – to one which offers a clear reflection of co-op values and principles in action.

Social justice and localism in tension?

The Co-op Group is planning to open 100 new convenience stores in 2016, looking to build at a community level

The Co-op Group is planning to open 100 new convenience stores in 2016, looking to build at a community level

While local connection between stores and communities might be seen as a good thing, the result may be that stores that are most successful in financial terms have more to distribute locally than others.

If their relative financial success also reflects the relative affluence of their customers/ communities, the result is a redistribution to the more advantaged rather than a charitable strategy that has a social justice framework to guide what it does.

So the problems are not simply the scattergun incoherence but perhaps more worryingly a lack of direction of the charitable aid to more disadvantaged people and communities. This is a problem of blanket localism.

It avoids the key problems of inter-territorial redistribution and may reinforce relative advantage. We need to recognise that social justice and localism may actually be in tension. and it’s precisely because of this that there can be experimentation and innovation.