Participation in a big, new co-op

I recently attended an event organised by Co-ops and Mutuals Wales ( at the wonderful Baptist Tabernacle Chapel in the Hayes, Cardiff. It brought together people from the co-operative, community development and adult learning fields to explore issues of citizen and member participation. It was great to hear how much common ground there is across the three fields, and to see the opportunities for us all to achieve more by learning and working together. What follows, below, was my contribution to the opening session where various speakers scattered all sorts of stories to create the soil from which collaborative learning could grow. You’ll see that it majors on the organisation I work for, which has boldly acquired a new Unique Selling Point. There are no similar multi-stakeholder co-ops providing care in the UK.

Most agencies like to hang on to their USPs. But that’s not the way with Co-operation. If you fancy doing something similar, we are definitely up for sharing and helping.


Cartrefi Cymru was established in 1989 as a charity, with a focus on supporting people with learning disabilities to move out of old, large institutions and live normal lives in their local communities. This was a major Welsh policy initiative and in consequence Cartrefi grew quickly to a significant size and it has maintained this size to the present. It currently supports 650 people, employs 1200 staff and works in fifteen local authority areas.

In 2016 it changed its legal constitution so as to become a multi-stakeholder co-op offering membership to three categories: people being supported, employees and community supporters. Its membership was launched in May 2017 and it quickly passed the “100” mark which its constitution requires for the triggering of elections. Currently, it has 480 members, roughly divided as 50% employees, 25% people supported and 25% community supporters.

The decision to change into a multi-stakeholder co-op was based on two things in particular. Firstly, as an organisation that wants to do right for all its stake-holders, Cartrefi identified that sharing power and talents would help it achieve better care and support, better workplaces, and better communities. Secondly, the ethos and expectations of the Welsh Social Services and Well-being Act 2014 puts a strong emphasis on the promotion of well-being, with its statutory guidance clearly stating that “Co-production is essential for well-being”. What Cartrefi therefore did was to create a constitution in which stakeholder-members co-produce its governance, and also to design its co-op membership offer so as to encourage people to build their co-op and their communities together.Participation in a big, new co-op

Under the new constitution, the top of the organisation is the membership which elects its Council of representatives who appoint the Board. In addition to appointing the Board, the Council has the authority to review and influence Board decisions in relation to the following: the Strategic Plan, the Annual Report, the Annual Accounts, the Central Budget, the Salary Structure, the Schedule of Delegated Authority, and Cartrefi’s Co-op Rules. Elections took place in June 2018 and the new Council of Members is currently being inducted prior to meeting with the Board in November.

In addition to national-level democratic engagement opportunities, Cartrefi has been encouraging members to come together in local forums, particularly with a view to creating and participating in community building activities. Nine forums have been established with lots of positive outcomes: people supported by Cartrefi are taking on co-chair roles, as are frontline support workers; people are surfacing their talents and ideas, and getting to know each other across the boundaries of service location or status or label. A particularly successful initiative has been to adopt a participative approach to evaluating what Cartrefi’s stakeholders are achieving. This is the “Most Significant Change” approach involving gathering stories from members and asking them to select and pass forward the most significant ones for the Council and Board to reflect on together.

Looking back at just over a year of active co-operative development, the record of success is significant: 480 members, first elections held to create a new Council, nine local forums, a variety of well-attended enjoyable meetings and activities, people doing and learning new things, new relationships being formed, and a shift towards being more outward-looking and community-focused. There is much to celebrate.

Looking forward, there are a number of challenges to work on. Although 480 members is a good number to have achieved, lots of potential members haven’t joined yet, and few members put themselves forward for the elections. Annual elections and relatively infrequent forum meetings mean that participation opportunities are still limited, and co-op activities are on the fringes of people’s experience. In addressing this, there is a need to offer clearer and stronger reasons to engage, a need to overcome the difficulties of communication across Wales to a diverse and isolated membership, and a need to embed co-operation into Cartrefi’s daily work.

There may be some helpful top-down ways of rising to these challenges, but the more bottom-up and horizontal we can be, the stronger and more co-operative we become.

If you’d like to learn more, or maybe even get involved as a community supporter member, contact or leave a Reply below.

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