Introduction

Although they are legally recognised entities, co-operatives have a different type of structure to companies, trusts, incorporated associations and other similar organisations. This is defined by a set of principles which shapes their character. The International Cooperative Alliance definition of co-operatives is:

“… an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly owned democratically controlled enterprise.”

The principles that define co-operatives include: self help, self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Co-operative members agree to operate ethically bound by the values of openness, social responsibility and caring for others. There are more than 2,000 co-operatives in Australia and around 180 in Queensland, however only a relatively small number are based in the Community Sector.

Many organisations who choose to use the co-operative model to support their collaboration, do so because it offers a “flat” structure of governance with all members seen as equals and because of the approach's intrinsic values and principles.

You can find out more information about becoming a co-operative and your legal obligations on the Office of Fair Trading website.

Advantages

  • Model incorporates intrinsic values and principles.
  • “Flat” governance structure.
  • Organisations can maintain autonomy. 
  • Relationships can be strengthened.
  • Joint funding can be trialled.

Disadvantages

  • Time required to establish well.
  • May be human resource intensive in early stages.
  • Cost benefit may take time to show.
  • Relationships need effort to maintain.
  • One agency has to take the lead and responsibility for ensuring sound governance and risk management.
  • Some funding bodies do not initially acknowledge Cooperatives as a legal governance structure.

Case study

Sunshine Coast Community Co-operative

The Neighbourhood Centres Collective (Caloundra Community Centre Inc, Hinterland Community Development Association of Caloundra Inc, Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre Inc, and Nambour Community Centre Inc) Building Links project has developed a model for enhancing collaboration on the Sunshine Coast. At the centre of the model is the formation of a co-operative. The Co-op provides the infrastructure for the participating organisations to collaborate to enhance and improve their services to their respective communities. It is not a “super-structure” that will swallow up each entity, but rather an enabling structure that respects the uniqueness of each organisation, and builds collective and individual capacity to respond more effectively to the needs in each of the communities served by the partners. The project has provided the partners with the opportunity to build on their existing collaborative efforts and grab the initiative to improve and enhance this collaboration in a pro-active manner.

The co-operative model for the new entity was chosen for its congruency with the ethos of collaboration. Much has been written and spoken about collaboration but it is essential that the structures adequate to hold the collaborative energy are put in place. The most effective way to enhance collaboration is to provide a structure that fits the work at hand. This structuring of the work is essential to concentrate energy and provide a focal point for action. Forming a cooperative that includes four community associations (and others in the future) is an innovative and unique achievement on the Sunshine Coast.

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