We’ve forgotten to explain what coops are in Cooperatives Fortnight & how they can benefit communities

Councillor Chris Herries

Councillor Chris Herries
Norwich City Council

For my first blog, I’m focussing on something that all elected representatives on Councils could use to highlight co-operatives and co-operative ways of working, so that we can focus on delivering the National Cooperative Development Strategy.

Cooperatives Fortnight 

I make no apology for choosing this as I ‘invented’ it and I would like to see it used, thrive and really let people know what cooperatives are.

Just as a bit of history – several Cooperative UK Congresses ago, when I was still on an Area Committee of the Cooperative Group in the South West we were asked to put forward ideas to pitch at Congress. As I was doing quite a bit of work in the SW including sessions at several universities explaining what cooperatives are, and how they work, I wondered how other organisations with complicated messages got theirs across. I was (and still am) active in supporting Fairtrade and remembered how a few years before no one had heard of the Fairtrade concept and when it first was announced it was a bit complicated to explain and illustrate so the Fairtrade Foundation came up with Fairtrade Fortnight. It provided a focus and an opportunity to explain the message several times and in many ways over their two weeks.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I shamelessly borrowed the idea and converted it into ‘Cooperatives Fortnight’. I pitched it at Congress, it was eagerly adopted and then a month later the Cooperatives UK Board formally took it on and it has been in the calendar ever since.

Except – it has now become a ‘doing’ two weeks rather than an ‘explaining’ two weeks. And we don’t seem to be much further forward in getting the general public to understand what a cooperative is, how it differs from other organisations and how the business model can benefit members and the community.

We seem to be focusing on being cooperative – very cuddly and friendly but open to all reasonable human beings, rather than doing the more difficult job of explaining how we are different, why we are different and the advantages that come from having a different business model. I realise that this is more complicated but that’s just the reason that Cooperatives Fortnight came into being in the first place.

I’m sure most of us have entered into a conversation with someone who thinks they know what a cooperative is – either a shop or a small craft group seem the most frequent ideas. Trying to explain that a cooperative is “An autonomous association of persons united voluntarily…….” and that there are many different types of cooperative usually sees eyes glaze over and attention wander. By the time you get to ‘the thing they all have in common is the Values and Principles you have usually lost them!

Hence Cooperatives Fortnight – that’s the time to have a stall with leaflets to explain what a cooperative is to people who are interested and have time to listen. It’s the time to post on social media frequently and in variety what cooperatives are and what they can do. It’s the time to take the longer argument over cooperatives advantages over PLCs out there and shout it. It’s the time to showcase local cooperative businesses large and small and to keep explaining how and why they are different. Yes, it’s also two weeks to be cooperative but surely we do that all the time.

These are our two weeks for shouting about who we are, what we do and how we do it better than anyone else! We can illustrate with examples of cooperatives around the world, we can highlight the strength we bring to the local national and international economy we can talk about empowering people at grassroots level and challenging the capitalist economy and we might even mention the cooperative commonwealth!

So how does this fit in to CCIN? I have a feeling some of my colleagues may say that it doesn’t that we are to do with being cooperative rather than promoting cooperatives. Why? Can’t we do both? If as cooperators we think that cooperatives are a better way of doing business, let’s get out there and tell people because at the moment they really need a better way of achieving things in their local communities.

In Cooperatives Fortnight, next year as Cooperative Councils we could all:

  • Put a motion to full Council supporting cooperatives,
  • Host a cooperative forum to show case local cooperatives suggesting each has some way of explaining how being a cooperative is vital to their business.
  • Set up a business skills workshop for people who want to start a cooperative
  • Put an article in the local magazine that most councils circulate explaining what cooperatives are and how they work.
  • Put out press releases and use social media to highlight events throughout Cooperatives Fortnight
  • Get whom ever has Cooperative Development in their portfolio on local broadcast media with as many examples of different local cooperatives as they can find.
  • Offer Cooperative lessons to schools and help them set up local cooperative ventures
  • Contact local Universities and Colleges Business studies departments and tell them about our often-neglected alternative business model and offer to talk to the students
  • Get in touch with all the cooperatives in the area well in advance and suggest working together cooperatively to make this a time to promote what we do and how we do it.
  • Think up as many other different ways of putting our model out there!

As Cooperative Councils, working with other parts of the Cooperative Movement we can grab Cooperatives Fortnight and make it stand out just like Fairtrade Fortnight has done. The latter has moved Fairtrade from niche to mainstream and we need to do the same with cooperatives and we need to do it now!

Councillor Chris Herries
Member of the CCIN Values & Principles Board
Cabinet Member for Safer Stronger Neighbourhoods & Cooperative Development
Norwich City Council


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