What is a co-operative?

Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”  Ban Ki-moon (United Nations Secretary General)

Co-operatives can be traced back to early civilisation when humans gathered in communities for mutual benefit. Arguably the oldest form of social enterprise, co-operatives aim to put people, rather than profits, at the center of their organisational model by empowering workers to collectively own their own businesses.  They are one of the most innovative organisational structures whose commitment to a triple bottom line of ‘people, planet and profit’ tries to ensure economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Because of this, there is a growing interest in co-operatives as an organisational model, despite the negative press associated with the Co-operative Bank.

In 2013 the Guardian stated that co-operatives have grown by a fifth since 2008, whereas the wider economy has failed to grow at all. They went on to say it is pretty clear that the co-operative approach works even in a difficult climate. Whilst co-ops seem to be going from strength to strength, it’s strange to see people’s blank faces when they find out Voluntary Action Harrow (VAH) is a co-operative. “What is a co-operative?” “You mean your hippies?” Some of the responses are quite humorous but it highlights a worrying fact most people don’t really understand what co-operatives actually are.

International Co-operative Alliance, define a co-op as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.  In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

In comparison, Co-operatives UK uses the simpler definition: “Co-operatives are businesses owned and run by and for their members, whether they are customers, employees or residents. As well as giving members an equal say and share of the profits, co-operatives act together to build a better world through co-operation.”

Whilst co-ops can be defined in various ways: no single definition is sufficient to explain the potential and flexibility of the organisational structure. Voluntary Action Harrow (VAH) is a workers co-operative, which means it’s owned and managed by its members. There are many different kinds of co-operatives such as housing, building, retailer, utility, credit unions, social, consumer, agricultural and political, amongst others. They might come in different shapes and sizes but all co-ops around the world generally operate according to the same seven core principle:

1. Open membership

2. Democratic control

3. Common ownership

4. Autonomy and Independence

5. Education, Training and Information

6. Co-operation among Co-operatives

7. Social aims alongside economic aims.

These principles underpin co-op policies, practices and procedures to ensure a united value and mission.

And this is the real beauty of co-ops!

By agreeing to these global values you are joining a movement of like-minded organisations and individuals with a strong determination to build a better future for us all. Through this powerful network you can receive help, resources and advice which can be invaluable when starting-up.

If national co-operative statistics and local interest in co-operatives are any indication, no doubt, the co-operative movement will continue to grow and expand.

Think Big. Think Local. Think Innovative. Think Co-operative.

In co-operation,

Alex Buckmire

alexbuckmire@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk

The Crooked Treasurer

On the 16th January the Harrow Observer reported a ‘crooked Treasurer’ stole £50k from the Holy Innocents Church in Kingsbury.

The question is why was this Treasurer able to commit this crime?

Was it because far too much trust was placed on one individual too soon who then abused the trust?

It is good practice to encourage new board members to the board. This not only refreshes the board and the organisation, it brings new ideas and perspectives, but also existing board members are likely to be more vigilant with new members. A trustee board that is closed and over familiar with one another can breed complacency as well as discourage new members to join.  It can also make it difficult for the questions that should be asked to be asked, and challenge practice.

We know this type of abuse is not uncommon. The Charity Commission reported between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2013 of the 1232 compliance cases they undertook the majority involved  concerns about governance (including problems with trustees’ roles and responsibilities) concerns about financial or funding issues (including problems with fraud or misapplied funds, or concerns about accounting). 1

One person’s wrong doing can impact the whole organisation as well as the other trustees who are not directly involved in committing the crime, as they become liable due to the collective responsibility of trustees.

Just because trustees are volunteering their time and doing good for the community it doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t be questioned. After all they are entrusted with other people’s money (public money) and so they should be held to account about how this money is spent. A charity recruiting a paid member of staff would expect to interview prospective candidates and take up references and properly induct and train the staff member. Isn’t it about time we approached trusteeship in the same way?

What can we do to protect our charities from this type of abuse?

Here’s a few tips:

  • It is good practice to have limits on the number of terms a Trustee can serve for the purposes of renewal and revitalisation.
  • Getting trustees to sign up to a Trustee Code of Conduct that has transparency and openness at its core and encourages Trustees to be inquisitive is one measure that Trustee boards can take.
  • Introduce Trustee Recruitment procedures
  • Introduce an induction programme for Trustees
  • Ensure existing and new Trustees receive training
  • Encourage board review annually
  • Ensuring strong leadership at board level, with clear lines of responsibility and reporting.
  • Making certain that there is a chair at the helm who is willing to hold people to task and make unpopular decisions for the benefit of the charities beneficiaries
  • A culture where questions are asked and practices challenged
  • A commitment to improvement of the organisation

Having such procedures in place is not completely fool proof, as with anything people who have bad intentions will always find a way.  What it does do is send a very clear message that ‘we like to do things properly here’, and would potentially put someone off who has any thoughts of doing something such as this.

What do you think? What have you done in your charity to safeguard against abuse of trust by trustees? Let us know by commenting below or emailing me your thoughts.

Anila Ramanlal

 anilaramanlal@voluntaryactionactionharrow.org.uk

Brainstorming Harrow

Recently we gave an open invitation to the residents of Harrow to attend a brainstorming session. The main aim of this session was to provide a platform where residents and not-for-profit organisations could voice their opinions and ideas to make Harrow a better place.

There was contribution from activists, tweeters, community leaders, trustees, residents, councillors and non-profit organisations. We were really pleased to see the amount of contribution throughout the session and some of the ideas people came up with we feel could really benefit the Harrow community.

Here is a Padlet of all the ideas  that we’re discussed during the event. Click here to open in new window.

We were quite surprised with the attendance, participation and enthusiasm of the group and would like to thank all those who got involved.

If you would like to see more of these types of events please let us know.

The Top 18 #TrusteesWeek Tweets

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Choosing the Right Chairperson

The trustee board of a charity or voluntary organisation is, in most cases, going to be made up of uniquely passionate individuals, fully invested in the operations and success of their cause and deeply concerned with the quality of their organisation’s decision making. Concentrated passion and enthusiasm like this is a priceless asset to anybody, what is risked when a group like this comes together is creating a mess of ideas or even an atmosphere of unnecessary competition, stifling the input of those less willing to shout over others to be heard. This is when having a truly effective chairperson at board and trustee meetings starts to come into play.

It’s pretty easy to view a chair as the most important person in the room. Not that this is untrue, it just depends on what you feel a chair is most responsible for. Should they be creative? Should they have answers for questions, solutions to problems? Are they a green or red light for ideas that are brought forward? Well no, not really, but this is how they are often seen, making the average chair something of a work horse. Two of the most important skills a chair can have is the ability to communicate and delegate, with authority and sensitivity. More important than their ability to solve problems is their emotional intelligence, their ability to adapt to who they are working with. It is their job to tactfully prevent any one individual from dominating a discussion and to draw more out those who appear a little reluctant. If board members are coming up with great ideas it is the responsibility of the chair to make sure these are followed through with. It’s not their job to take all of this new work on, but to make sure initiatives aren’t discarded and to match the right tasks to the right people.

If you do feel that a chair person is not effective it is not necessarily their own fault. Though a lot of this can come down to the chair’s inability or unwillingness to communicate, a lot of the time the problem lies in recruitment and a board or organisation not taking responsibility for feeding back what is working and what is not. Really take the time to evaluate who would be best for the role. Just because somebody is willing to put himself forward does not mean that they will give you what you need. Understand that this person doesn’t have the easiest job in the world; be willing to offer support and even training if possible.

The best thing you can do is to pay close attention to those individuals who have endeavored to give up their time and offer their skills to support your cause. In your next board meeting, look out for those who make others feel at ease, those who always bring a discussion back to its point and the one who everybody seems to address what they say to, because in that person you have the makings of a great chair and a better board.

James Wright

jameswright@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk

Net-work

“Your network is the people who want to help you, and you want to help them, and that’s really powerful.” – Reid Hoffman (Co-Founder of LinkedIn)

At a very early age I was told again and again this fairly common cliché, ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’. Ever since, making connections and building strong working relationships has been a key skill I have tried to develop. Not only for myself, but for those around me – never missing an opportunity to recommend people, fair trade products or services to others.

Sometimes networking can be a daunting prospect. Enter a room of strangers (name badge on), introduce yourself, what you and your organisation do, scary stuff. It can also be quite time consuming. Fitting in ‘meet and greets’ is sometimes last on our list of priorities. But however you might feel about networking, it is a wonderful opportunity to give and receive assistance.

KnowHow NonProfit has an interesting approach to creating networking events and spotting opportunities (find out more here). While the method they use is quite scientific it gives some useful insight into a way of measuring effectiveness of networking communications.

The growth of social media has made networking with people a lot easier. LinkedIn, for example, is a great resource to stay connected with people you might meet at a conference, training session or event. But if you are not on LinkedIn, you can find free local networking events on Eventbrite. Relatively undiscovered social media platform Meetup allows users to form groups, organise events and share information,  and is another great tool to keep connected.

For me, networking is all about supporting each other and we should use the resources and skills which we all have to actively give each other our support!

So, network, network, network. You never know who you might meet.

Alex Buckmire

alexbuckmire@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk

Think Co-operative

Keen followers to VAH’s Twitter and Facebook pages might have noticed that it’s Co-operatives Fortnight 2013 (#coops14), a national campaign to celebrate co-operative businesses up and down the country. During the next two weeks our marketing team will be in full swing bringing you the best of how local co-ops are celebrating the event, and providing you with information about this ethical and innovative business model.

The simple definition of a co-operative is ‘an enterprise that is owned and democratically controlled by its members’. Embedded in their beliefs, values, vision, and practices, are community and sustainable development.  The Co-operatives UK website is a fantastic resource if you would like to learn anything and everything about co-ops.

With the theme ‘local, loved and trusted’ the fourteen days of Co-operatives Fortnight will see businesses ranging from bike shops to bakers, architects to allotments and farmers to pharmacies inviting local people to join them in celebrating the fact that they are owned by and run for their members.

We are inviting people to join us at a free Introduction to Co-op Development Event to celebrate Co-operatives Fortnight. This will be an informative event celebrating co-operatives and is a perfect opportunity to learn more about starting a co-op. So if you’re involved in a co-op or looking for a new innovative business model, get down to The Lodge.

As the newest member of our workers co-operative and true supporter of ethical business I hope to see more local groups taking up this business model.

In co-operation,

Alex Buckmire

alexbuckmire@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk

How accessible is YOUR website?

Though an undoubtedly dubious honour to receive, to the winner of this year’s ‘Canada’s Worst Charity Website’ went an invaluable prize: a full website makeover courtesy of the competition’s organisers, Rtraction. And a fierce competition this most certainly was as the charity sector is home to some of the clunkiest, most unsightly and out-dated websites in existence, something that urgently needs to change.

Of course, for smaller, local charities, this problem is understandable; with much of the incredible work going on and the strain on time and resources that this can result in, website accessibility can be easily overlooked. However, not only does a sloppy website not do justice to the quality of an organisation’s work, it can create barriers between a charity and those who might wish to engage with it.

No matter what high standards of quality your services or web content might set, if the people you are trying to support are unable to make use of them due to inaccessibility they are ultimately rendered useless. Perhaps the most pressing question you should be asking yourself when considering your design is: ‘Who is likely to be visiting my website?’ Always consider the fact that many users could have impaired vision, learning difficulties or mental health issues, and a poorly constructed site could potentially be denying them access to important information and support. Definitely do not assume that they are sat behind a desk scrolling their mouse across the screen of a desktop PC because the means by which people view your website are likely to change frequently and radically, and you must be ready to adapt accordingly.

The advent of mobile computing and ubiquitous internet means that even the most lovingly and painstakingly composed websites are being stretched and squeezed into unsightly shapes and sizes as, in all likelihood, they will be viewed through a tablet device or Smartphone. Displayed through a large monitor your site might look great, but much of its impact can get lost when shrunk down to the size of a credit card on someone’s mobile phone. Navigation, visibility and responsiveness can all heavily suffer if you don’t look ahead to anticipate the new and constantly changing ways that people are going to engage with you. Google’s hyper-futuristic, hands free, head mounted Google Glass monitor is now in development and, while it might seem like elite technology now, in the future it, or something like it, could be commonplace. Websites will need to be as pliable as putty to keep up.

James Wright

jameswright@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk

Social Media Gets A Voice!

Today is World Voice Day (#WVD2013 – 16/04/2013), a day to demonstrate the importance of voice in our daily life. Our voice used to be one of our main methods of communication, but now it is constantly competing with messaging, texting and tweeting. However things look as if they are about to change thanks to (drum roll, please) Dubbler.

Dubbler is a relatively new beta app on iPhone and Android which allows the user to record 60 seconds of audio and share their voice to Facebook, Twitter and the virtual community.  With the growth of social media and voice recognition software, this new social media platform looks as if it could become a serious contender to be the next viral social network.

So, why is this relevant to the not-for-profit community?  

Hopefully this new app will not only be more accessible to a wider variety of people, including the blind, but will also give more of an emphasis of personal communications.

At the heart of every charity or social enterprise is a great social concern. They are usually run by the most passionate advocates you will ever find in your life. Imagine those people voicing these causes to the outside world. Not only will it help an organisation showcase their personality, but it should also motivate consumers to take action, whether be through volunteering or donating.

Giving social media a voice will hopefully strengthen the relationship between the charitable causes, the users and the public.

Dubbler is definitely a step in a good direction, adding a further dimension to how we interact via social media.

Alex Buckmire

alexbuckmire@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk

Becoming a Trustee

Written by a non-trustee

I have never felt the urge to become a trustee because I felt I lacked the skills and experience. But I have realised people at my age, 27, can become a trustee as long as they have an interest in the organisations work and the relevant skills. It’s so important for charities to believe in younger people like me to become trustees, then so many more charities can benefit from the investment they put into new recruits as they are more likely to stay longer and make a real difference for their charity.

Trustees are passionate people who volunteer their time because they believe in their charities’ cause. They are usually people who have a passion for what the charity does and they are keen to develop a more cohesive society. The volunteers play a behind the scenes role effectively, designing strategic plans to take their charities forward and deal with a number of matters, including finances, marketing and project development.

During Trustee Week 2012 we, Voluntary Action Harrow, were really busy putting on events and increasing awareness of trusteeship. At our quarterly trustee networking event, there was a lively discussion on how and why charities should recruit more young trustees. Next, we had a ‘tea and cakes / celebration of our new office event which was thoroughly enjoyable. That wasn’t surprising as one of our members mother baked a range of delicious cakes, which was consumed by various trustees, volunteers and colleagues from Harrow’s voluntary community sector organisations.

I am not a trustee, I am still waiting to find that right charity, but, after being heavily involved in Trustees’  and Trustees development I have been actively searching for appropriate trustee vacancies that match my interests and skills. I have a number of interests so please, charities: post your board roles far and wide you’ll never know who you might recruit.

Robert Range

robertrange@voluntaryactionharrow.org.uk