Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Monday, 29 June 2009

A Magic Moment

Last week was an incredibly frantic, but inspiring one. Yet despite the variety (visits to the Lake District, Oban and Co-op Congress, as well as meetings with Energy4All, Community Retailing Network and Reading University), one moment stood out.

That moment came at Co-op Congress (Co-operatives 2009 in new money). Jo White from Co-operative Futures and I were running a workshop to share the launch of the Co-operative Development Network with delegates. Rather than just launch into a stand-and-deliver lecture, we asked the audience to share in groups all the co-operative eneterprises that they'd be proud to see formed over the next ten years. It was only a warm-up activity, but the passion it unlocked was incredible. Groups filled up flipcharts with incredible ideas (many of them designed to tackle rural issues) and could have filled many more.

It showed how much could be achieved if we could line up the right resources. Jo shared the current barriers and I introduced the new network which will see a wide range of organisations committing to work together to create new co-operatives and support existing ones.

Working at the front, the energy from the audience was incredible and Plunkett looks forward to helping making some of those flipchart ideas become real.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Social Media: more than just a toy

One of my strangest speaking experiences was when I addressed a workshop at the Canadian Co-operative Congress this week on using social media.  It was strange because the audience was 3,500 miles away at the time. Even stranger was giving a powerpoint presentation to an audience that I couldn't see.

I was presenting alongside Tim McAlpine of Currency Marketing, which has supported the inspiring work in Alberta and many other places to get the credit union message across to young people. If you haven't seen the incredible work of Larissa Walkiw, then stop what you're doing and watch this video now. Tim makes a powerful case for what any values-driven business has to get its message across and the price of not doing so.

I was there to share how Plunkett is using these tools and the need to not see them as toys, but as the way to engage people now and in the future. Most of our current tools for engagement, such as meetings, are based on models developed 300 years ago. Few people would want 18th century healthcare or education, but 18th century democracy is still widely used.

The debate around the forthcoming Digital Britain report illustrates this problem well. The issue of broadband access has been well covered. What hasn't been covered is what to do with it. Few communities have shown how they can use this to completely change the way they access services and support each other. The star performer here is Alston in Cumbria with its Cybermoor co-operative and its plans for Alston Healthcare.

What Alston has also shown is the importance of ownership in this debate. No mainstream provider could have provided the additional benefits that Cybermoor has. Hopefully the Commission for Rural Communities report coming out this week, assisted by the Community Broadband Network, will make the case for this.

The choice for rural communities is simple, you can use your hard won broadband to watch kittens on a treadmill videos or to tackle the lack of access to services by changing what it means to access services in rural areas. Plunkett has nothing against kittens, but it will be the latter that we will be concentrating on.

Monday, 15 June 2009

No need to reinvent wheels

The local food sector is brimming with so much innovation at present that it is easy to overlook that which was there long before the current generation. So it was with great pleasure this week that I spent time with Country Markets hearing of its plans for the future.

Country Markets hasn't obtained the profile of other local food initiatives, but its results are impressive. It has 65 market societies operating 400 markets with 12,000 producers. That's 12,000 people creating great food in their own homes and then sharing it with others.

Like Plunkett, Country Markets has been operating for 90 years using the co-operative model. It's a fantastic way that individuals can become involved in local food production. You can find full details and how to find a market on its website.

What excited me most was that this was an organisation not living on its past. It had exciting plans for the future that will transform how its products and its markets are presented. Country Markets was using its role as a partner in Making Local Food Work, the BIG lottery funded programme which Plunkett leads, to ensure a vibrant future. I wish them every success as they represent both a great tradition and a model of individual food production combined with co-operative selling whose time has come.

Monday, 8 June 2009

DFB: A (Sir Horace) Plunkett Perspective

One of the great tools that we have at the Plunkett Foundation is to analyse any event from the perspective of what would Sir Horace have made of it. There's no doubt that he would have had strong views about the demise of the Dairy Farmers of Britain co-operative.

He would have been saddened that its passing attracted little coverage outside of the business and farming press. Saddened even more at the lack of concern for farming families who lost one-twelfth of their annual income at a stroke, a chunk of their savings and left many facing cashflow problems, often from the very banks that their own income tax payments had been used to bail out.

He would also have been saddened by the lack of understanding in the coverage. One describing the farmers as "employed" by the co-op, another saying that there was no difference in co-operatives and companies.

But his greatest sadness would have been that he had told the world long ago how such problems could be prevented. He had made it clear that co-operatives could only fulfill their potential if they remained rooted in the communities that created them. He saw time and time again that a move away from this was the first step down the path to failure. 

Sir Horace, however, always hoped. He hoped that one day the farming community would turn to face the communities it came from rather than the city bankers and business consultants. He'd hope, once again, that this time the lesson would be learned.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Showing the right things

There was much to enjoy on a family trip to the Bath and West Show. One of the stand out stalls for me was the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, OMSCO. This was for two reasons. Firstly, it didn't hide the fact that it was proud to be a co-operative.

Secondly, it didn't take product awareness for granted. It SOLD the idea that people should switch to organic milk (yes, even in recession), not by a call to conscience but by laying out the benefits and then letting people taste the product.

This "on the front foot" mentality is just what's needed in hard times, selling your product and your identity with all the pride you can muster.