Post COVID-19 blossoming: a co-operative call up

Post-COVID-19 can be a time where co-operatives and social enterprises will blossom and bear fruit for all of Wales, writes Dr Anthony Samuel. However, in order to do so, they will need to be carefully nurtured to reach their maximum potential.

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Following the economic and social fallout of COVID-19, Social Enterprise across the UK is undoubtedly polarised. While many have been active (yet not celebrated) at the forefront of the crisis, providing social care, mental health support, supporting remote working and assisting vulnerable households and people, others have been forced into hibernation.

Economists focus on the impending doom of yet another recession and we are faced with growing neo-liberal rhetoric that supports big business as saviours that are ready to offer solutions to public service delivery. I argue that this discourse can, and should, be challenged by cultivating co-operatives and social enterprise. With the correct support, these ‘socially-good disruptors’ may become a better means of achieving the goals of the Well-being of Future Generations Act in a post-COVID-19 Wales.

This optimism is based on the sector’s ability to use the COVID-19 crisis to reimagine its weaknesses and recreate them as strengths and opportunities. In support of this, I would like to posit two thematic examples of how this may emerge in action. 

  1. Care for and educate us

While the tech giants of Silicon Valley are aggressively promoting a new utopian on-line education system, co-operatives and social enterprises, despite our scepticism of their professional ability and capacity, can offer a place-based alternative. Community gardens, hubs and social spaces run by co-operatives and social enterprise can provide novel (COVID-19-safe) spaces for outdoor and indoor educational experiences. These facilities and their staff, if invested in and afforded the opportunity, are uniquely positioned to offer schools places and spaces where pupils can be reintroduced to their community while experiencing a socially inclusive education.

As care homes emerge from the heart of the COVID-19 crisis, many of the privately-owned homes are reporting concerns about increasing operating costs and an inability to make them profitable. As a result, two possible scenarios could arise. First, some homes will be forced to close, while others will be subsumed into large for-profit businesses. With many care homes operating as social enterprises, there is already a blueprint to be shared and an enterprise model that puts resident care (not profit) at the heart of its operation. Therefore, community care could become a fertile landscape for co-operatives and social enterprises to flourish and make substantial social and economic contributions. However, to achieve this we must still be mindful that co-operatives and social enterprises often find it hard to access adequate start-up funds and need to be trusted to run such complex operations. 

  1. Place(ing) action to Make me Younger

The strong ties that co-operatives and social enterprises have with their stakeholders and neighbourhood beneficiaries are often the sources of many celebrations. For example, 63% of UK social enterprises utilise 100% locally employed staff. A considerable number operate at a neighbourhood level (28%), and that is generally within areas that suffer from social deprivation. Social capital is therefore suggested to play a pivotal role in enabling their functions, the development of their relationships with clients and the legitimisation of their entity. However, social enterprises’ overdependence upon social capital has been brought into question. For example, it’s argued that Social Enterprise networks and associations are usually limited in size, can be highly value-laden, overrun with an ageing workforce and lacking diversity. These issues possibly limit the innovation and operational capacity of co-operatives and social enterprises. However, as we emerge from COVID-19, we are told that the younger generation of the UK will be hit the hardest in term of employment and opportunities. At the same time, we also know they are becoming increasingly ‘woke’ to social, ecological and economic justice. Thus, we may see a pool of young people seeking employment that fits with their newfound socially conscious awakening. Co-operatives and social enterprise may thereby have the potential to expand their capacity and contributions by introducing younger blood and greater diversification into their volunteers, board members, clients and consumers.

In summary, post-COVID-19 can be a time where co-operatives and social enterprises will blossom and bear fruit for all of Wales. However, in order to do so, they will need to be carefully nurtured to reach their maximum potential.

This blog is published as part of a series for Co-operatives Fortnight 2020. Let’s build back better together. #KeepCooperating

Dr Anthony Samuel Cardiff University Business School

“We may see a pool of young people seeking employment that fits with their newfound socially conscious awakening.”

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Read more of our #KeepCooperating blogs for Co-operatives Fortnight 2020