An Equality Agenda for Co-op and Community Finance

After a year on our Board, Trustee Owen Dowsett writes on the progress we are making towards an equality agenda. He recognises progress made so far, identifies priority areas to work on, questions to ask and explores how our work sits within a wave of change across our the sector.

Just over a year ago I joined CCF as a Trustee. With a background in research and programme design around equality, investment and the VCSE sector, I was brought on board to help strengthen the work that CCF is doing to promote equality outcomes. There is no doubt that progress has been made during my time here but that is entirely down to the work of the excellent staff at CCF. For me, the first year has been very much a learning experience. This is my first role as a Trustee and also my first proper engagement with the cooperative sector. Thanks to visits to cooperatives, engagement with the wider social investment sector, and dedicated discussions regarding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in our working group, I am finally getting somewhere. Here are some reflections, and a sense of how I hope we manoeuvre going forward.

First of all, we are making progress. In line with broader efforts across the social investment sector (see the work of the Diversity Forum for example), we are putting measures and actions in place to ensure our own organisational practices stand up to scrutiny when it comes to EDI. We have a working group, and ensure that EDI is a standing item at Board meetings. We have set up a webpage and have set out our approach to EDI. We have updated our loan application forms to capture equality data and are gathering data retrospectively from our existing portfolio. This is all part of a broader action plan which has been given shape and form as a result of us signing up to the Diversity Forum’s Manifesto.

Secondly, at the face of it, investment in cooperatives and the democratic ownership and control of community assets has significant equality potential. The seven cooperative principles all speak to equality and equity in one way or another and those who I speak to are clearly motivated by notions of justice and fairness. But it could be argued that this potential is underplayed. In my time on the Equality Impact Investing Project (EIIP), we explored strategies by which social investors and lenders can maximise their equality impact. This included ensuring their own business practices were up to scratch (see my first point) but also extended to reflecting on where investment was going. That might mean targeting investment at business leaders from under-represented communities, or in businesses that are ahead of the game in terms of their equality-focused policies and procedures. Finally, ‘equality impact investing’ strategies could involve basing investment decisions on the types of activities that recipients were undertaking, and especially seeking those that tackle the symptoms or in some cases the structural causes of inequality.

What we didn’t do in the EII project was really dig into the potential of basing investment decisions on organisational form to support equality outcomes. In this case, the onus would be less on what the business does, or the profile of individual leaders, as vital as these strategies are. Attention would instead shift to how ownership structures and wider relationships (between workers, with consumers, with suppliers, with communities) are organised. This is absolutely where the seeds of equality and inequality are sewn. As a lender committed specifically to supporting ventures that are democratically owned by their members, CCF works in recognition of this. It supports community-owned pubs and bakeries and printing cooperatives. But there is still more we can do to understand, maximise and communicate our equality impact.  This is especially the case given the growing traction of related concepts and movements, such as community wealth-building (e.g. the much-vaunted Preston Model) and the solidarity economy, which similarly point to notions of shared prosperity and participatory democracy.

A third reflection is that we still have lots of questions. CCF does not yet have the data to assess whether our portfolio is diverse and without such data, we don’t know whether our portfolio reflects (existing or potential) demand. Are there certain communities that are seeking capital for democratically-based projects but not given the same opportunities as others? Do cooperative and democratic forms of ownership and control hold more appeal for some than others? Is there potential to stimulate demand in new communities? Does the language of cooperatives and democratic ownership and community need to be adapted to bring others into the fold? Moving beyond a narrow diversity agenda, are there certain cooperative activities and projects that our lending favours over others? And to what extent are trends in borrowing representative of our approach and limitations at CCF, or challenges playing out across the cooperative sector as a whole? Is there a market-building role that we need to play? These are just some of the questions we have been grappling with, and that we hope to become clearer on over the coming months.

Finally, we can’t and won’t drive the changes needed on our own. We will look to draw upon the experience and expertise and networks of the many people and projects that are working to maximise equality impact. We take inspiration from initiatives like the Equalising Deal Terms project run by Bates Wells in collaboration with the EIIP to address power imbalances between investors and investees, and The Phoenix Way which is transforming the relationships between funders and Black and racially minoritised organisations. We defer to the standing of organisations like Voice4Change England, Disability Rights UK and the many place-based organisations that fight for the interests of under-served communities. And of course, we’ll look to align with developments in the cooperative sector, whether that’s the relaunch of the Barefoot Programme, the setup of a new sectoral federation, or continued efforts to identify and address inequalities that stymie the movement’s potential. Please do get in touch if you see an opportunity for working together on this.