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CO-OPS & MUTUALS: Hiding in plain sight

Griffith Centre for Systems Innovation
Good Shift
Published in
8 min readOct 13, 2021


This post is a lightly edited version of speaker notes from a panel presentation at the Co-ops and Mutuals: Hiding in Plain Sight event organised by the Australian Fabians on 19 August 2021. The panel included: Emeritus Professor Greg Patmore; Antony McMullenCo-operative Bonds; Ian McBurneyBHive; and Dr Joanne McNeillThe Yunus Centre, Griffith University. This post features Joanne’s presentation — and you can watch the recording of the whole event here.

This clip provides some insights into cooperatives and into Anchor models. I’ll come back to those shortly but first I’m going to zoom out a bit and locate the cooperative model within a broader context.

As we’re all too aware, I think, the planet and its occupants — human and non-human — are facing ‘wicked’ problems across multiple dimensions. And just last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released its sixth assessment report, making it impossible to turn away from the intensity of the issues we face.

In this context, where there is a growing hunger to make sense of the mess we find ourselves in, two tools have emerged that can help make a start on identifying promising pathways. There are others of course, but I highlight these two as they are relatively widely known.

Over the past almost decade now Kate Raworth has popularised the ‘doughnut economics’ framework, with its compelling visual representation, which helps us see more clearly planetary limits on environmental and social dimensions.

And in 2015, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were adopted, establishing a common language and targets to work towards in addressing some of the most pressing challenges.

These two sense-making frameworks help us to see more clearly, and importantly perhaps to agree on, where shifts need to occur.

Of relevance for this discussion is that one of the things they bring into stark relief is that our business-as-usual approaches are not just not working, but in many areas are contributing to and compounding some of the drivers of these complex challenges.

And this is the opportunity I’d like to focus on — the opportunity to rethink and re-design our business-as-usual models so as to normalise new ways of working and of organising our lives.

If you watch the full recording of this event, you can watch my panel colleagues delve more deeply into the cooperative model in particular, including different types of coops and some examples — my focus here is to provide some positioning for that model.


To do that I’ll first introduce the idea of ‘the impact economy’. This figure was developed by my team at The Yunus Centre aiming to highlight and perhaps create bridges across the diversity of already existing more-than-profit economic actors.

Diversity of Impact Enterprise, The Yunus Centre, Griffith University 2020

The inner green ring contains a listing of ‘identities’ associated with what is sometimes called the for-purpose sector — social enterprises, Indigenous businesses, BCorps and the like. These are all what we refer to as ‘impact enterprises’ — an umbrella term for the wide range of organisations that use commerce (or business methods) for the primary purpose of creating defined positive social, cultural, environmental and/or economic impacts. And defined is important here — this is about intentionality, not by-products.

What the diagram shows is that the elements in each of the rings — identity, business model, legal structure, industry and impact focus — can be combined in different ways so as to intentionally create enterprises that have at their core a tight focus on contributing to addressing a defined positive impact. Here we have mapped the impact goals to the SDGs, because it does provide something of a common language, but other frameworks could also be used.

You can see cooperatives included in two of the rings. As a for-purpose enterprise identity, in the inner green ring; and also in the grey ring, as a specific legal structure — that is, a designated ‘type’ of enterprise. It is the latter that is usually focussed on in discussions about cooperatives, and the legal structure is key to the impact they can generate.

But what I’m interested to draw out here is what happens when you combine the two and include a specific impact focus. Using the diagram, we can see that Evergreen Cooperatives for example, has these characteristics — it is legally structured as a cooperative (a nested set of coops, actually) that is also designed around a very specific for-purpose identity that is driving change around local employment and ownership — and contributing to generating a whole range of other social and environmental impact as a result.

We define these kinds of enterprises as making up the ‘impact economy’ and suggest that at this time if our collective efforts could be directed into designing, establishing, developing, maintaining and supporting this part of our economy — there is potential to incrementally shift our business-as-usual models, practices and mind sets in ways that are imperative to making inroads towards addressing the complex challenges we now face.

The unique characteristics of cooperatives can make them powerful actors in this space. Particularly when they combine the cooperative identity with the cooperative legal structure — as with the Evergreen Cooperatives example, where the impact-goals are embedded within the DNA of the enterprise.


So what are the impact-goals in this case?

Evergreen Cooperatives is part of the Community Wealth Building movement, which is generating impressive outcomes through:

  • Increasing (quality) local employment
  • Prioritising community-centred economic development
  • Securing local business succession and continuity
  • Democratising participation in local decision-making

In the context of the discussion at the Fabians Australia event — the focus on these outcomes is important as they provide the foundation for intentionally designing and building an impact enterprise. Especially when combined, they direct attention and priority to shifting the practices, behaviours and mindsets that underpin some of the fundamental characteristics of business-as-usual — and through this, demonstrate how ‘new-normals’ for models of enterprise can be established.

Community Wealth Building advocates the co-operative legal structure as the appropriate vehicle for this work as co-ops have specific characteristics, that ‘bake-in’ the desired behaviours and practices.

I’ll leave CWB there for now — but if you’d like to delve into the model in more detail and in the Australian context, I’d recommend this report.

Next I’ll outline how the ambitious and important work of initiatives like Evergreen Cooperatives — and other fabulous enterprises like BHive, can be enabled by institutional actors and policymakers. I think this is an important discussion, as there will be many amongst us who may not be in a position to, or want to, establish cooperatives themselves. But who are in positions where they could contribute to enabling the strengthening, growth and inter-connectivity of the impact economy.


Anchor models are a practical and powerful strategy for this work. The Evergreen clip at the top of this post introduced the idea of Anchor Institutions. Anchor Institutions are large organisations characterised by an impact focus that is tightly connected to and strongly grounded in the current and future wellbeing of a specified place — whether that be a suburb, town, city or region.

This place-connection is forged — at least in part — through the infrastructure and asset portfolios of the Anchor Institution, which typically mean it has to be committed to that place for the long term. This can be thought of as a form of ‘sticky capital’, as they are unlikely to close down or relocate to another community — and so the name Anchor!

As we saw in the Cleveland clip, Anchor Institutions use their economic activity to ‘structure in’ support for impact enterprises. As shown on the screen, this structuring in can be achieved through decisions around:

  • Generation and regeneration of infrastructure and healthy environments
  • Growing local affordable housing
  • Procurement and supply chain policies and practices
  • Place-focussed investment strategies
  • Local recruitment and workforce development . . . and across all of these
  • . . . through active collaboration with the local community, so its needs and aspirations are central to decision making
Figure 1: Six strategic activity domains through which Anchor Institutions can support the places and communities in which they operate, The Yunus Centre Griffith University 2020 (drawing on personal communications between Yunus Centre and Julia Slay, 2019)

Through this intentional, strategic, and very practical approach, Anchor Institutions can become key actors in establishing enabling ecosystems around ambitious initiatives such as Evergreen Cooperatives.

When the role is approached with this kind of intentionality, the organisation can be characterised as having adopted an Anchor Mission. Drawing on the work of Marianna Mazzucato and others — mission-led approaches involve ambitious, goal-driven, and multi-stakeholder efforts to create solutions to pressing societal challenges and opportunities.

Adopting an Anchor Mission is the process of deliberately deploying the organisation’s long-term, place-based economic power to strengthen a local community or region.


And this is where it starts to get really exciting!

The adoption of an explicit and publicly visible Anchor Mission starts to ‘normalise’ the kinds of organisational practices and behaviours mentioned earlier — acting as an attractor for other organisations and institutions to get involved.

This can result in the establishment of an Anchor Collaborative. Anchor Collaboratives are networks of Anchor Institutions — providing a structure through which their collective resources can be aligned to benefit the place they are anchored in, usually through formalised alliances and strategies.

How Evergreen Cooperatives are building community wealth

The image here was developed to show how this works in the Cleveland Evergreen model. At the bottom you can see that there are multiple organisations involved, and using the range of strategies outlined earlier. In this model, worker cooperatives have been chosen as the combined enterprise identity and legal structure through which to direct Anchor efforts.


The Preston Model is another example that shows how the same approach can be adapted, including to involve a wider range of impact enterprises.

Coming out of Preston in the UK — it is implementing the principles of Community Wealth Building within the city and the wider Lancashire area. The Anchor Collaborative partners are Lancashire County Council, the University of Lancashire, Preston’s College, Cardinal Newman College, Community Gateway Housing Association, and the Lancashire Constabulary.

There is a focus on building up and strengthening cooperative and democratically owned enterprises, but the approach is also inclusive of other locally owned businesses. Importantly, The Preston Real Living Wage initiative is part of the Model. To date much of the effort has been focussed on procurement-driven strategies, getting more contracts let to local enterprises and promoting the Living Wage initiative.

You can read more about the Preston Model on the Preston website and in the Guardian — including a recent short piece from Matthew Brown, Labour leader of Preston City Council; who argues the model has been instrumental in regenerating Preston over the past decade, and that it is this kind of transformative vision voters are craving from elected officials.

It’s a complex approach and the partners are open and transparent about it being an exploratory journey, centred around their shared Anchor Mission ambitions, and with much still to unfold.

These kinds of practical experiments are critically important to advancing our understanding of and expertise around building a stronger, bigger, and more effective impact economy that generates positive outcomes for more people and for the planet.

Dr Joanne McNeill
R&D Lead — The Yunus Centre, Griffith University

Read more about our thinking around the power of Mission-led approaches.



Griffith Centre for Systems Innovation
Good Shift

Griffith University's Centre for Systems Innovation exists to accelerate transitions to regenerative and distributive futures through systems innovation