Fifty years of friendship and finance – introducing Tiziana O’Hara

In our series of interviews with friends from our first fifty years of financing co-ops and community ownership, today we talk to Tiziana O’Hara, founder member of Co-op Alternatives – the only cooperatives development agency in Northern Ireland.

“Co-operative Alternatives is a Co-operative Development body. It’s quite recent in that we’ve been operating for the past 10 years. We are the only CDB In Northern Ireland and of course, we have a lot in common with the rest of the UK as there is a lot of similar legislation, even though organisations like Power to Change and some of the National Lottery support that has been available to Wales and Scotland for Community Shares doesn’t stretch here. Our relationship with ICOF started when we had common clients. We would be helping them by providing the development part of it, while ICOF was supporting them with a loan. Usually our working relationship is this way –  we do the development, we set up the cooperative, we do all business planning and the legal work, and then when the cooperative needs the start-up capital – which could be loans or maybe community shares – we suggest ICOF. ICOF is one of the few organisations that is tuned in to the community share market.

I’ve always found ICOF quite accessible although their capital might be considered to focus more on the other regions of the UK. I developed a good relationship with the team when they visited Northern Ireland to visit clients, we met each time, and we’ve worked together on a couple of projects.

These projects have included Jubilee Farm and Ballymacash Sports Academy. Some of these included collaboration with the Co-op Foundation, to underwrite the community shares.

Jubilee Farm in Larne is the first community-owned farm in Northern Ireland. It’s very much about creating community spaces where they can grow vegetables and care for animals.

The Ballymacash sports project is a great community sports facility. Initially they needed money to renovate their own pitch, and now they are going on on to bigger things, building a sports academy.

These two projects were quite early stages, but ICOF came in and helped us with the Co-op Foundation to open up a bit of financial support. Recently, I’ve also got to know Kevin Lloyd-Evans, ICOF new Lending and Relationship Manager. He has given great support to Boundary Brewing, a very long established cooperative in Northern Ireland. I always find that the relationship with ICOF is very personal, very close and personal. And I like that because I would not really thrive in a very formal environment! That kind of accessibility and approach has suited my organisation very well.

In the future, I am looking forward to continuing our good relationship with ICOF. In terms of the future for social finance, I would like to see some new kinds of hybrid funding from financial organisations – I’m not a financial person but maybe this could be not only loans, maybe underwriting some shares, a bit of seed funding and a bit of maybe share or equity capital. There’s a lot of opportunity but today it’s good to celebrate the good things and this good relationship. I think in our sector we survive only if we have a good, open kind of conversation with each other and I think the team in ICOF has always had that with us.

Here’s a bilingual birthday greeting! Congratulazioni per il vostro cinquantesimo anniversario e tanti auguri per altri cinquant’anni! Congratulations for your 50th anniversary and best wishes to another 50!

From Tiziana in Northern Ireland with my double identity, Italian by heart, but Northern Irish in work.