Can charities benefit from embedding Co-operative principles into their governance?

Cartrefi Cymru Co-operative Ltd was established as a charity in 1989. Its purpose was to enable people with learning disabilities in Wales to live decent lives as independently as possible in the community. The main focus was on supporting people to live as tenants in their own homes, but it also provided support to people living with their families.

It proved to be a much-needed service and Cartrefi quickly grew into one of the largest care providers in Wales, a position it continues to hold, with 1200 employees supporting people and families in 16 local authority areas.

From the get-go, Cartrefi was committed to providing the highest quality of care and support based on person-centred values of individuality, inclusion and independence, but the development of new legislation for social care in Wales (enacted in 2014) surfaced a new agenda for care services that challenged even the best providers to do better.

The new agenda was about “coproduction”, an approach to service design and delivery which sought to transform the relationship between “givers and receivers” so that all participants were valued as contributors, with assets to be mobilised and power to be shared on both sides of the relationship.

The new approach is intended not just to increase the probability of a care service being as effective as possible for its end users (because they have a real say about what they receive) but also to increase the capacity of the “care system” by recognising users and families and their community connections as sources of self-help and peer-to-peer support.

Welsh care legislation defines coproduction as: a way of working whereby practitioners and people work together as equal partners to plan and deliver care and support. … The principles and practices of coproduction are intended to build the local core economy of people exchanging their skills, interests and time.

In the light of this new transformative agenda for social care, Cartrefi began to reflect on the implications for its governance and identity. The traditional charity model is based on a top-down benevolence model of “doing good to others”. In contrast, the co-operative tradition is about equals coming together for collective self-help.

We found inspiration from successful examples of care co-operatives in other countries. Some were worker co-ops that excluded the people being supported. Some were consumer/user co-ops that excluded the workforce. But some were multi-stakeholder, and we decided that this model offered the best way of building coproduction into our governance. It meant we could value both workers and service users, and a third membership category of community supporters as well.  And in 2016, we made the leap.

We brought in solicitors with a track record of working with the co-operative sector (Anthony Collins LLP, Birmingham) and they helped is draw up new Articles of Association that turned us into a co-operative democratic membership organisation. The formal transition proved to be quite straightforward, not least because it was possible to make the change without de-registering as a charity or Company Limited by Guarantee.

The key changes from our previous model of governance are:

  • The people we support, our employees and community supporters are now all able to become voting members with elected representatives (the Council of Members) who appoint our Board of Trustees.
  • As well as running the organisation competently as a charity and a business, the Board is required “to advance the Co-operative Principles in respect of the Company”:
    1. Voluntary and Open Membership 
    2. Democratic Member Control 
    3. Member Economic Participation 
    4. Autonomy and Independence 
    5. Education, Training and Information 
    6. Co-operation Among Co-operatives 
    7. Concern for the Community 

As a consequence of these changes, we have gone from being an organisation in which our only members were a small group of trustees to being one with 600 members. We have a Board appointment process which ensures new trustees understand the value and status of the stakeholders to whom they are accountable. We have regular engagement between senior officers and trustees and stakeholder representatives, who surface their lived experience and ask probing questions, and engage in discussions about the issues we face and our plans to address them.

Activities are identified and agreed at the Forum and then followed through. Shopping for elderly neighbours, raising funds for a women’s refuge, improving accessibility at a local allotment, choir singing at a care home, running a weekly social night, organising a plastic recycling project: these are just some of the things that members have done. There are multiple benefits: for the members themselves, for the community in which they live, and for Cartrefi’s reputation as an organisation that is adding social value.

At the individual level, many employees and people we support have found both pleasure and enhanced esteem from becoming active members, taking part in elections, co-organising community-building activities, and having an insight and a say about what is being done at the highest level.  

“Becoming a co-op is important because it gives me more say about how I am supported” (Michelle, service user); “I like being co-chair of my local Co-op Forum and meeting senior managers” (Robert, service user);  “It’s good to be able to hear from senior managers about what they are doing to influence the funding of social care” (Carole, support worker); “I feel like I can play an important role in asking challenging questions” (David, community supporter).

It is also worth flagging up the benefit to be gained from adopting Co-operation as a spur towards inter-agency collaboration. Principle 6 encourages co-operation with other co-operatives. We have developed a strong partnership relationship with the Wales Co-operative Centre, benefiting from their social business expertise and assisting them with our social care expertise. We are learning from and sharing with other new social care co-ops in the UK, and with housing mutuals too, from Merthyr to Rochdale.

Of course, co-operation with a small-c is an approach that stretches beyond the confines of formally identified Co-ops and Mutuals, and can include the wider third sector, public bodies and even for-profits. But becoming a Co-operative brings you inside a Movement where inter-agency sharing and support is the expectation, and in our experience, the reality.

It is still early days. Three years is not a long time in terms of achieving a deep change of culture and processes, especially for a medium-to-large organisation, spread across a mountainous country like Wales. We also have a lot of Business As Usual obligations arising from care contracts and regulations. And there are obvious challenges to member engagement when one key stakeholder group has significant learning disabilities, and another, the employee group, is working long hours and focused on the daily necessities of care and support.

Council of members virtual meeting

The Covid-pandemic has presented even greater challenges to member engagement and collective action. But we are using technology to maintain the dialogue between members and the Board. And we are confident that our co-operative structure and values will be a strength for post-Covid recovery. Our members will help us use our resources wisely: focusing on what matters to them. And they will be resources too, connecting us to the riches to be found in community self-help and good neighbourliness. We believe that giving a strong voice and real influence to our users, staff and communities makes us stronger and better ready to face the future.

Many of these challenges will be with us for the long-term, and we have a lot of learning ahead of us still, as we seek to realise the full potential of our co-productive and co-operative transformation. But what we have achieved already is more than enough to keep us moving forward. And we would definitely encourage other charities to consider taking a similar route. 

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