A co-operative (often shortened to co-op or coop) is a business owned and run by and for its members. Co-ops are run democratically – i.e. one member / one vote; some raise capital by asking members to invest by buying shares; some choose to distribute profits to members, and some are in ‘common ownership’, and don’t. There are over 2.6 million co-ops worldwide, with over 1 billion members and employing 250 million people.
A social enterprise is a business set up for the greater good – to benefit society, disadvantaged people, the environment etc. There are various different structures that you can use.
What to do
1. Work in a co-op
There is a Loomio group with general announcements about job vacancies in the co-op sector (globally). Go here, login (you can join for free), then put ‘co-ops’ or ‘worker co-ops’ in the search box. You’ll see a thread called ‘vacancies and opportunities’. Loomio is a platform/tool for having discussions and making decisions (including by consensus), provided by Enspiral – itself a worker co-op.
2. Set up a co-op
If you’d like to set up a co-op, there are various places you can go for help. Co-operatives UK have lots of resources, including their business support service, the Hive. Here’s a good place to start. Read this through first to get a good overview. They can guide you if you want to register a new co-op, merge co-ops or convert an existing business to a co-op. Browse their websites and contact them to talk about your options.
There are co-op development agencies all over the country – search online. They have advisors to help you set up. They charge, but there’s usually a free first consultation, and they often look for funding to pay for their time. The Hive have a fund that pays for co-op development advice. You can apply if your business idea is reasonably well-developed.
If you have a local, high-profile co-op, it might be worth contacting them to let them know that you have an idea for a co-op, and to ask if there might be anyone you can go along and chat with. Most people in the co-op movement would like there to be more co-ops, so you might find someone happy to help.
3. Convert to a co-op
Existing businesses can become co-ops. The organisations mentioned above can help you with this too. The process has to be open and voluntary – i.e. no-one should suddenly find themselves part of a co-op that they weren’t consulted about forming.
A co-op in which all workers or consumers are members is called a fully-mutual co-op. However, co-ops can have workers or consumers who are not members. Some people may not want the responsibility of co-running a co-op, but if the business converts, they can keep their job without being a member. In that case, they won’t have a say in the decisions that affect their job.
4. Set up another type of social enterprise
Here’s the best source of information we’ve found for helping people work out the structure that’s best for them. It’s called ‘The Structures for Social Enterprise’ and it has a flow chart to help people think about which legal structure is right for them, the pros and cons of various legal structures and a glossary to help people with the legal jargon.