Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Holiday in Co-opia: A spot of Co-op tourism

No, I'm not talking about buying a holiday from your caring, sharing co-op, but some "co-op spotting" from a recent holiday.   In March we were in the USA and whilst in Philadelphia, decided to check out Mariposa Food Co-op.

Impressive building outside
Mariposa Food Co-op is a consumer co-operative (i.e. its members who democratically own and control it are its customers) and serves people in its local West Philadelphia community with organic produce, wholefoods and vegetarian/vegan specialities (the reason we were there!).  When we visited it had moved from a small shopfront into what had previously been a bank 100 yards down the road – the banners from the grand opening a week previously were still at the front door!  As if the building itself wasn't impressive enough, inside we found an airy, well stocked grocery with plenty to tempt us.  And staff who were immediately helpful, knowledgeable and good humoured when we couldn't find what we wanted.  It might sound a bit cheesy, but clearly the people who work at this co-op are happy to be there!
Impressive co-op: well stocked and well staffed
On reaching the checkout, my partner jokingly responded to the obligatory “Is there anything else we can help you with?” with “You could open one of these in Southampton in the UK”.  The cashier's immediate response was “I'm sorry, we can't do that but I can provide you with information about how you could set one up yourself”.  What a result! 
Here we were in the UN Year of the Co-operative and without so much as a blink of an eyelid, a worker at a co-op had offered us help setting up a new co-op.  That, my friends, is the 5th Co-operative principle (Education, Training and Information) put into practice. 
I quickly explained that I help people establish and develop co-ops for a living  but took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions.  Most of what I need to know was on the well populated (but not cluttered) notice board.  Member education and recruitment of members from customers is clearly a priority.  Membership of this co-op is ACTIVELY open and voluntary. (1st principle).

In a 1 minute conversation (we were holding up the queue....) I learned some really interesting stuff about this co-op:
  • There is a tension between the old and new communities as the area is currently subjected to gentrification (the house turned into a pirate ship with countless water butts was probably the old rather than the new)
  • They had opened up the shop to the whole community to move into the larger store. From this I took it that they had previously been fully mutual (only members being able to use its services) and decided to move to a more open model.
  • The produce held by the co-op had changed as a result.  For example, they had just started selling meat.  On the one hand I like the fact that they respond to member needs, but on the other hand I was left wondering if the co-op was drifting away from its original purpose. 
  • As a result of their large size they cannot now pay attention to meet the diverse needs of the many local communities.  My take on this is that what started as providing to the niche needs of a particular group or groups in the community has become an open market provider and had to adopt more of a one-size-fits-all where those who buy in small quantities are no longer visible enough to get their needs met.  To paraphrase a famous US citizen: “You can't please all the people all the time”, or at least not when you reach a certain size.
  • The cashier's analysis on the change of size was that lots of small co-ops might have been a better way to approach growth which I found both refreshing and fascinating (see below).
  • Members of the co-op who work shifts once a month obtain a 10% discount on their grocery bill.  This is a model used widely in the US and adopted by some UK co-ops (The People's Supermarket being the most famous).   Not only does this provide the working capital in member time (3rd principle, Member Economic Participation) but it also generates a direct member benefit while simultaneously.
  • In addition they have 19 paid staff, recruited from members.
  • 3 of the 4 staff working in the store while we were there were African Americans which would please my colleagues at Olmec Co-operative CIC trying to bring more diversity to UK Co-ops through their Co-operative Diversity Action programme.
Don't take my word for it.  Check out their website:
Most UK buying co-ops would be chuffed to have what Mariposa left behind!

Following our visit I was so enthused that I would not stop talking about it, hence this blog.  I want to share what I found so exciting.  Here is a co-op that shouts it loud and puts the principles into action as a primary means of functioning but isn't afraid to admit it could be better.

Size and growth issues

One thing that really interested me was the comment about growth and size as it challenges the orthodox approach to business growth.  If a co-operative has grown to the extent that its size hampers its ability to meet its members needs it could be rightly argued to be failing in both its commercial and social objectives. All co-operatives and social enterprises should consider what their optimum size is.  Most people understand that increasing turnover/customers/delivery staff can bring economies of scale and spread the costs of overheads and management.  However, there is often a stage of growth at which the overheads and management systems have had to radically change to support the business and it becomes less efficient again, until it grows to the next optimum size.  The inefficiencies being spread across a larger scale can be amplified and the margin for error becomes more critical.  Will your enterprise get to this second optimum size?  More than likely only if there is a plan in place.  Should you consider a different approach? Perhaps the creation of clusters? Or a federal structure ro service co-operative providing central functions which creates new sister co-ops rather than one monolithic beast? (Yes, I know a monolith is stone so it can't be a beast...poetic licence in operation here).   

Pedal Co-op - could you get any more eco-friendly?

Later in the same day we made a trek to the truly excellent Grindcore House in South Philly. I believe they are a co-op, but it was so busy (queuing out the door!) that we didn't have time to chat.  They are a totally vegan coffee house that does excellent food and hosts meetings for various co-ops and community groups.  But that isn't what caught my eye.  No, it was this fella in the picture from Pedal Co-op.  We spotted a trailer connected to the back of a bike, strapped up with 3 wheelie bins emblazoned with "Pedal Co-op" whizzing past as we ordered our coffee.  When we were sat outside enjoying lunch it reappeared and the rider proceeded to load up all the waste from the coffee shop.  On investigation it turns out that Pedal Co-op run a refuse and recycling business using pedal power rather than trucks.  So, reduced carbon footprint and reduced running costs (bikes are A LOT cheaper to run than trucks!).   Additionally they direct all compostable waste to community gardens which is a win-win-win situation: extra compost for the community garden, less landfill, reduced storage need for the co-op.  What a truly inspirational idea.  This sort of true entrepreneurialism and diversity is what I love about the co-op and social enterprise sector and why I became involved in the first place.   Again, don't take my word for it, check out their website:

Saturday, 3 March 2012

How to market your Social Enterprise's goods and services

On Thurs 1 March I was one of the panel of "experts" leading a discussion about marketing for Social Enterprises as part of the Guardian Social Enterprise Network Live Q&A series.
Some really interesting insights available, and all for free.  I would recommend spending 10 minutes browsing through it.