In May 2015, London Student started functioning as a co-operative. This gave members an equal stake in managing an independent publication, which is really exciting.
Over a year later, on October 26, 2016, we officially became a co-operative society recognised by the Financial Conduct Authority under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014. From then on, certain legal and financial obligations were put on the members.
Becoming a co-op has been challenging, to say the least. Voting on policy, organising working groups and generally trying to do something without any industry precedent can really slow things down. But it’s been tremendously fun and rewarding.
But what is a co-operative?
Put simply, co-operatives are businesses owned and controlled by their members, who have an equal say in how the business is run and choose what to do with profits.
So, if you think your publication would thrive under a co-op model, then here’s a simple guide to getting set up. This can apply to any publication, not just student media.
Before you begin filling in forms, you need to lay the foundations of your co-op. It’s best if you’ve already started functioning as a co-op, so there won’t be an awkward transition when it becomes official.
1. First, you’ll need a clearly defined group of people who will form the membership. This group can be editors, contributors or even readers.
2. The members should then work to come up with a list of aims for the publication. Collaborating on a mission statement is a good way to go about this.
3. You should also develop a financial model. Your money could come from supporters’ donations, grants, a membership fee, and advertising. And your outgoings would likely go to hosting, web development and printing.
Choose a legal form
Now you’re ready to get technical. The legal form is how the co-op will be considered in the eyes of the law. There are several legal forms available but we’ll focus on co-operative society because we thought that was best for London Student. Other legal forms are available – company limited by guarantee and community benefit society.
The key characteristics of a co-operative society are:
1. The members benefit
2. One member, one vote
3. There are no artificial restrictions on membership
Co-ops are registered as co-operative societies under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014. To qualify under the Act, the co-op should be carrying out ‘an industry, business or trade and meet the condition of registration as either a ‘co-operative society’ or a ‘community benefit society’.’
Decide on your governing rules
All new co-ops need a governing document which sets out the what, how and why. You can write your own document from scratch but it is far easier to use model governing documents (model rules) and make a number of adjustments to suit your co-op. These must be presented to the FCA on your behalf for a fee by a sponsoring body, such as Co-ops UK.
London Student used the workers’ co-operative model rules through Co-ops UK.
The sponsoring body will check if the name of your co-op is available and let you know if it is likely to be accepted by the FCA. It will also provide an application form for the FCA, which asks about the co-op’s purpose, how it will use profits, and other questions. This is where your mission statement will come in useful.
One of the signatures on the form must come from the secretary, which means voting for a secretary. Other roles include chair and treasurer.
Sit down with your members and complete the model rules and application form, sign them, and return them to your sponsoring body. Then they’ll send them to the FCA.
Assuming there are no problems with the documents, the co-op will be officially approved. You’ll be expected to operate in accordance with your governing documents and provide annual returns to the FCA. As a co-op, you’ll be free of any proprietary influence because you’ll be guided solely by your members. That’s about as independent as you can be.
I hope you found this brief guide useful. Co-ops UK has a load of helpful documents that go into much more detail. If you have any questions for me, comment below or you can reach me via the About page.