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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Creating enterprising communities

This opinion piece is about 10 years old

Karen Birch, chair of Glasgow Women’s Library, is calling on the Big Lottery Fund to invest in the development of community-owned and run initiatives across Scotland

Karen Birch, chair, Glasgow Women’s Library
Karen Birch, chair, Glasgow Women’s Library

Across the country and across the political spectrum everyone agrees that building sustainable communities should be at the core of any initiative for social impact. Community cannot be imposed by government directive. It is an active condition reinforced by active membership with people choosing to identify with and support community values and purpose.

Throughout the last century, the model of community action has been one of volunteering and heavily reliant on grant-funding and individual philanthropy. This is not sustainable. As an entrepreneur of some 25 years standing, I believe that the key is enterprise. I see co-operative community enterprise as a real alternative to the market failures in the private sector and the continual withdrawal of funding from the public sector.

Community co-operatives are organisations set up to provide services to a particular community which use co-operative principles to guide their activities. Co-operatives help to organise and sustain social movements and the people in them and find expression in, for example, wholefoods, housing, credit unions, fair trade and renewable energy.

Community investment allows members of a community to buy shares in an enterprise that serves that community. It gives people a stake in the success of that enterprise. Common ownership puts the assets of the community co-operative in a similar relationship to its members as the village green is to the inhabitants of a village. Everyone has use of the asset but no-one person has title or claim and no-one person can dig it up and take it away.

The challenge to the Big Lottery Fund is to find ways to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised to genuinely buy-in to their local community enterprises

The alignment of shareholders needs to the needs of the community enterprise promotes long-term sustainability over short-term profit-taking. At a time when many communities are faced with the loss of local amenities this change in focus is, I think, crucial.

And community shareholders are also far more likely to get involved; to become active supporters of the enterprise, and not just remain as consumers of products and services. Shareholders become customers and suppliers and employees and owners. It is a true stakeholder model and one that promotes sustainability.

The challenge to the Big Lottery Fund is to find ways to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised to genuinely buy-in to their local community enterprises; to find ways of using the fund to enable everyone, not only those with their own capital to invest, to have shared ownership of community assets and community enterprises.

When members of the community become genuine stakeholders and not simply clients or service users sustainable community enterprise can flourish.

Karen Birch is chair at Glasgow Women’s Library and advises communties and businesses on co-operative business development.

The blog was written for the Big Lottery Fund Scotand's Your Voice Our Vision consultation, which is exploring how to best use £4 billion of funding from 2015-2021.