Thursday, 29 September 2011

Do Cooperatives miss the funding bus?

Today I went to MAC for Co-operatives West Midlands networking event for 'creative cooperatives'.  Nick Matthews introduced the day, highlighting the continuing problem the coop has in promoting itself, with classic response, 'the Coop, is that like Tescos?'

No it isn't, and interestingly enough, despite a more troubling UK retail Coop, Cooperatives in Japan are apparently out competing Tescos.  Nick talked about organising creatives as like 'herding cats'.   He suggested the coop model works for creative types.  I'd agree they have a talent for working with a wide range of people, as was evident with the next presentation from Electro-swing Circus - Birmingham's newest Performance Co-operative.

There was discussion about the 'resilience' of cooperative structure in present eco climate - afterall, advantages of a workforce which owns the business works harder, and people buy the 'coop' brand believing it to be more 'ethical' (even if, returning to coop promotion problem, few people seem to know why coops might be better).

There was also mention of potential economic advantages in regard to taxing.  Steve Holdworth from IGNITE creative discussed why they became a Coop, initiated by advice from their accountant.

Maybe I should be more bothered by the hard financial advantages of coops, but I went to the event  because I wanted to explore the social benefits of sharing embodied in the Coop.  What advantages are there?  Well, Co-operative Futures were on hand, highlighting the 'family coop', and used a Bus analogy - a coop is like a bus taking people to profits/benefits.   A key question - Who do you want on the bus and why?  Who claims the dividend and who are your customers?  Does your model really work?  Hard questions, and subtly different from other business model questions.

Recently I've been thinking more about 'the funding bus' - a phenomena which is growing in our (creative and education) sector, where practitioners increasingly look to the funders first, and find a client to match.  The model is embodied by playground equipment manufacturers like Playforce, who provide support for schools to make applications to funding sources they have already identified, to buy the equipment they sell.  It's a tough challenge , when some applications require a great deal of knowledge, time and effort to complete, and where experienced form fillers are at a distinct advantage.  Surely this is a valuable skill we should be rewarding - if some of the funding targeted at schools goes to pay for fund raisers, isn't that OK, as long as they get some cash for the school?  Operating in a competitive market, some businesses may not be offering schools the best value - isn't that up to the schools to work out?

I was there because I thought the cooperative model may offer some solutions to these problems, sharing info, experiences, practice, to provide the 'best quality' creative work efficiently.  I was also pleased to see Future Melting Pot there, already on the way to being a cooperative - collective experience across a range of sectors to support and promote each other.

Coops don't necessarily avoid the funding bus, but they can provide social benefit and business solutions which ensure needs are more properly analysed, and more of the money is spent most effectively.  Coops seem to win hands down, financially, providing quality services, treating workers properly, generally more ethical, and yes, Coops, are sexy again.

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