Successfully developing any new business demands good organisation and planning. Setting up a new care co-operative – a business on which people will be highly reliant for their crucial care needs, and with all of its inbuilt complexities around regulatory compliance, multi-stakeholder governance, and community accountability, means that organisation and planning are doubly important.
This section covers the following
- How the group organises itself in terms of roles and responsibilities, working groups, reporting and internal communications, etc.
- The legal form that your organisation adopts: community benefit society, community interest company, etc. We’ll consider some of the pros and cons of different approaches.
- Practical steps to getting legally constituted - designing and adopting a set of rules, registration, etc.
- Sorting out a bank account
- Practicalities of the multi-stakeholder co-operative model and how it can work in practice, decision-making, rights and types of members once its up and running as a business etc
It’s likely that as your project develops, the size of your team will increase, as will the number of work-streams. This growing complexity can become a challenge to manage, ensuring that everyone can maintain a clear overview of the project and a sense of direction and movement towards the goal.
Initially all or most of your meetings will probably involve your entire steering group – everyone that has signed up to play a role in pushing the project forward. As things evolve you’ll likely create some smaller teams – sub-groups or sub-committees – focussed on particular work-streams such as financial planning, premises, or operational planning, for example. Each sub-group will report back into the overall steering group at regular intervals.
Of course every group and every project is different, and the people involved will all bring their own unique perspective on things, so it’s important to be flexible and responsive to the specific set of circumstances that you are working with.
That said, some basics seem to be fairly universally useful in our experience:
- Agree a regular meeting cycle for the whole project team to get together (either face to face or as is increasingly the norm, via a video-conferencing service), share updates and make decisions about the way forward.
- Try to share the work evenly, and in line with the skills and expertise within your group.
- You may want to set out some basic roles right away – such as treasurer, chair, etc., or you might prefer a different approach – maybe identify two or three people within your group who will take responsibility for finances, perhaps rotate the role of chair/convenor of meetings, etc. It’s about what works for the people in your group. What’s important is that you have a consensus on how your group operates, and that your group functions effectively.
- If you’ve got gaps in your team’s skill-set, try to find people to fill them. Having the right expertise in your steering group can save you a lot of time.
- As your project evolves people may be taking on significant chunks of work and responsibility for getting things done. Be clear about these roles and responsibilities, and ensure that the people taking on tasks are supported wherever possible – remember that you are all volunteers so mutual support and encouragement is key to avoiding stress and burnout.
- Avoid creating – either intentionally or unintentionally – silos of information, gatekeepers or fiefdoms within your group. The best way to do this is to adopt a transparent approach where everyone in the group has access to everything within the group. Share all of your documents – see the info below on using digital tools for some easy ways to do this.
- Sort out your decision-making processes early on. In the very early stages of your project decisions are likely to be made by whoever turns up and does the work - a “do-ocracy”. As the project evolves and your steering group develops and evolves towards a management committee or board of directors, you may prefer decision-making processes by which everyone – regardless of whether they are able to participate in a given meeting for example – can participate in the debate, or perhaps even use digital votings tools. A small group can commonly make decisions by consensus (everyone agrees, and proposals are refined in order to achieve full agreement), where for a larger group decision-making by consent (where no-one objects, and proposals are refined in order to tackle objections). We’re seeing growing interest in sociocratic approaches to meetings and decision-making, and this may be a model that suits the way your group likes to operate. In general it’s fair to say that voting should be a last resort – it can be divisive, creating winners and losers, and in a small group setting is often a clear signal that something isn’t working.
- Having good internal systems and shared tools can play a valuable role in enabling team members to get things done and avoid getting stressed or overloaded. There is a wide range of digital tools and platforms available – often free to use or at very low cost – that can really help with internal planning and communications, and I’ve outlined a few of these below.
Getting your Digital Ducks in a Row
There is a growing ecosystem of online platforms and tools designed to help your team collaborate more effectively. With the COVID-19 pandemic use of these tools has accelerated. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather I’ve identified a few things that I know and use, and have attempted to explain why I think they are useful and worthy of your attention. Of course, different people have different ways of working, and your group will no doubt have its own preferences.
If your team does choose to adopt some of these tools, be aware that not everyone in your group may be digitally savvy, so be ready to provide some hand-holding and support as appropriate.
Effective internal communications between your group members is crucial. Something like Whatsapp might work well for your group. It runs on any smartphone so you don’t need to have a computer, supports group chats and lets you share files. There are many alternatives to apps like Whatsapp (e.g. Telegram, Signal).
In my experience, whilst email is an effectively universal tool, it’s really quite poor when it comes to what may become quite a high volume of traffic between a group of perhaps a dozen or more people. Mailing lists like Google Groups can help. What our team used - and still does - is the oddly named Slack. It brings all of your team’s chat into one place and avoids the problem of an overflowing email inbox. Discussions can be managed in themed ‘channels’, files can be shared, it even supports voice calls, and there are loads of ways to integrate it with other tools you might want to use. It’s free to use – there is a fairly pricey premium option (at around £8 per person per month), but as long as your group is content with the constraints of the free option, it’s certainly worth looking at. Microsoft’s Teams service has been launched to compete with Slack, but I can’t comment on it as I’ve not used it.
Shared file storage:
You’ll need a place to store all the documents that your group will be producing: minutes and agendas for meetings, business plans, financial projections, policies and procedures, images and artwork, the list goes on. Again there’s plenty of choice here, and you shouldn’t have to pay, at least initially. A few options include Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Microsoft Onedrive, Apple’s iCloud, etc.
We went for the simple and effective Trello to help with project management, and the free service should be plenty for your needs. But again there are plenty of options out there.
Website/contact management/mailing list/s:
Again lots of options here. We went for a Wordpress website running alongside a CiviCRM contact management system with integrated mailing list functionality [internal note: maybe we could offer a service around this to other new groups as part of the federal/back office service package?]. The software is open source, robust and free of licensing costs, so you’ll only be paying for design/development work and hosting fees if you go down this road, and maybe you’ll have someone in your group, as we did, with skills in this area.
Tips: Agree on file formats.
Creating a Legal Entity
As you progress you’ll almost inevitably need to create a legal entity. This provides protection for the individuals involved, through limited liability, and provides a set of operating practices and principles in the governing document that are designed to help the members of the organisation to govern it effectively and in a manner compliant with the relevant legislation.
As you will be aware from other sections of this toolkit, we believe that for both principled and practical reasons a co-operative legal form offers an optimal solution for the type of community-led social care organisations that we are building and promoting. In the UK this still means that you have quite a wide choice of legal forms available to you, so let’s dig into that a little more, and hopefully explain our choice for the Colne Valley co-operative:
We wanted to ensure that the key people in the organisation: namely the people in receipt of care services (and their family members), and the people providing care services (both paid and volunteers), were in the driving seat. If the organisation was going to succeed it had to work well and deliver for both of these groups. Giving them democratic ownership and control of the business was an obvious step. Alongside these two core stakeholders, we also wanted to ensure that the organisation as a whole was firmly rooted in the wider community that it sought to serve, and that it was both responsive and accountable to the people in that community. This aligned with our vision of the wider positive social impacts that we sought – that improving the health and wellbeing outcomes for care receivers and givers had a direct knock-on effect in terms of the well-being and health of the wider community, and that by taking direct responsibility for the care of its people rather than outsourcing it to either the public or private sectors, a community becomes stronger and healthier and more resilient.
Putting these factors together with the need to raise the necessary start-up capital effectively made our choices for us. A community share issue was the obvious route to capitalise the business, creating a third stakeholder group of investor-members. Therefore the optimal options were narrowed to either a registered co-operative society or a society for the benefit of the community (or SBC for short), both of which provide opportunities to raise finance through a low cost community share issue. The latter of these clearly gave us the broader focus, not on our members but on the community that the business serves. And it provides the framework we need to run the organisation on a democratic basis. The legal structure marries well with our vision, and we would heartily recommend it to other communities looking to replicate what we’re building here.
Co-operatives UK select a structure: https://www.uk.coop/developing-co-ops/select-structure-tool
Simply Legal - a clear and concise guide to pretty much everything you need to know about legal forms relevant to starting a care co-operative: https://www.uk.coop/resources/simply-legal
At some point in your development you are going to need a bank account. Setting up a bank account is a pretty fiddly and time-consuming job, and you may well not want to do it until you have your legal structure in place and your founding board members clear as this makes all the form filling less cumbersome. If you secure funding before.
If you are setting up a co-operative then we recommend that you at least include the Co-operative Bank on your shortlist when looking for a banking partner. Whilst no longer a co-operative itself, the Co-operative Bank is one of the few banks in the UK with a strong ethical policy, and at the time of writing it continues to provide free banking to co-operative organisations via its Community Directplus Current Account (https://www.co-operativebank.co.uk/business/products/current-accounts/community-directplus)
Of course it pays to shop around. Other banks that we feel are certainly worthy of consideration include Unity Trust Bank (https://www.unity.co.uk) and Triodos Bank (https://www.triodos.co.uk)
Developing Effective Multi-stakeholder Governance
This is an area that we’re still working up. At the time of writing we’re not operational, partly as a result of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what we can say at this point is that we deliberately opted for a lightweight approach in our governing document (link). We could have chosen to go into great detail within our governing document to set out different classes of membership to clearly describe and delineate the different types of member that we aim to attract (care receiver, care giver, investor/community member), and set out how these various constituencies would make up the board of directors of the society. Instead, we opted for a very simple statement in our rules:
“The Board of Directors shall endeavour to ensure that its composition reflects the diversity of member relationships with the Society. This shall be reviewed by the Directors from time to time.”
Now of course we may come to review this in the course of time and with the benefit of experience. However, at this stage the view is that this light touch approach gives us lots of flexibility to test and develop an approach that works for our members, and how the make-up of that membership may evolve and change over time. We have the capability and flexibility to develop internal policy and guidelines around how we work with our stakeholder groups most effectively, without the risk of bumping up against an overly inflexible rule in our governing document which would be costly and cumbersome to change.
What we do know is that this is a crucially important area of work. It is highly likely that many, indeed most, of our society’s members will have little experience of managing or governing a co-operative social care organisation. We’ll need to educate ourselves and each other about what that means in practice. We’ll need to learn about the common interests and the areas of potential conflict amongst our various constituent groups, and invest effort into optimising our processes and systems to hone in on the ‘sweet spot’ where the interests of our stakeholder groups are aligned. All three stakeholder groups will be focussed on developing a sustainable business model where we can deliver a high quality service, reward and develop our people well, and at the same time operate a financially sound organisation that can meet its obligations to our community of investors.