Fifty years of friendship and finance – Business Development Manager Tim looks back over our 50th year

What a year it’s been! We’re closing our fiftieth year with a final interview, this one is with our Business Development Manager Tim who looks back on his connection with ICOF and this fantastic 50th year that we’ve all shared. 

“I’ve been here for almost eight years – eight years in January. I first learned about ICOF through the Plunkett Foundation. I worked for Community First, the rural community council in Wiltshire, doing various projects around social enterprise, rural economic development with a specialism in village retailing. Through my work with community owned shops, I got to know Ian Rothwell and then got to know the organisation – when the Business Development Manager opportunity came up, that was it, I jumped at the chance.

So, what a year. It’s been fantastic to look back over the past 50 years through the interviews of so many different people who have been involved with ICOF in that time. People from all sorts of different sectors and spheres – it’s been great to have that history played out in the interview series, creating an archive of stories. It’s interesting to have seen how the organisation has evolved, and how the sort of sectors we’ve been involved with has evolved, whether that’s due to political changes, economic, environmental, or just the way that people live their lives. For us it started with common ownership, worker co-ops, back in the 70s and 80s when there was a rise of wholefood co-ops, radical printing co-ops and manufacturing. In the 90s housing co-ops and recycling came to the fore and more recently through the 2000s and 2010s we have been much more involved with community enterprises, or community businesses as we now call them, through increasing use of the Community Benefit Society model. 

There’s been real growth in that community area of the co-op movement and almost created its own subsector, as a co-op solution to safeguard services and failing private enterprise, we saw this  firstly through village shops and more recently with pubs. Being part of the More Than A Pub partnership with the Plunkett Foundation, Power to Change and the Key Fund has been a particular highlight for me personally, along with many others! Another of my fondest projects was with a project called Just Growth, lending to small scale agriculture, food and farming projects. I remember I was thrown in the deep end within only a day or two of starting. My then colleague Ian Rothwell was unable to work and I had to take his place meeting applicants to the new fund at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I really loved that and it was really interesting for me, as although I come from a rural background, it was a bit different to the typical farms, shops and pubs that I’d been used to. Lastly I can’t not mention the Co-op Foundation Community Spaces fund, this was a new fund we helped set-up for and with the Foundation from scratch and saw me travelling all over the UK doing appraisals with a colleague Ella from the Co-op Foundation. It’s a portfolio we continue to manage and monitor on their behalf today as part of our fund management and back-office services

As we move forward in the 2020s we’re seeing a broadening of the community benefit society model, as that widens out into different sectors – through CBS’s we’ve seen growth in the community energy sector, bringing renewables and environmental causes and projects to the fore. And we continue to see high demand for Housing Co-ops, Pubs and Community Spaces of all shapes and sizes. This has been supported by the community shares market in particular which has been a game changer for us and what we do, in supporting loans alongside community share investment. I’m involved in the Booster Program and more recently the pot of money that we’ve secured through the Access Foundation in partnership with Co-ops UK has allowed us to provide institutional investment into community share offers through our sister society Community Shares ICOF. 

As we move forward I am glad to see the development of the new, distinctively supporting worker owned co-ops, and also the growth in the numbers of conversions into employee ownership. Supporting worker co-ops and common ownership was why ICOF was conceived  and these legal forms are more relevant than ever as we seek to create an alternative new economy; especially for precarious workers in a new age of digital and AI. This is all coupled with a new cohort of co-op practitioners – it’s no secret that the practitioner network, many who started in the early years of ICOF, are ageing or already retired, so it’s fantastic to see so many new practitioners joining and becoming skilled in co-ops through the Co-op Culture/ Stir to Action Barefoot Programme, and will be supporting new co-ops of the future.  

In the last couple of years, our involvement in the wider social investment market, which perhaps we’ve been more on the fringes of before, has grown too. It’s great to be involved in projects like the Thrive Together Partnership – that’s the first time we’ve had that sort of blended pot, available across most of our portfolio rather than sector specific pubs and shops. This enables our portfolio to be broadened out, and has enabled us to work more closely with some of the other social investors in the market; which in turn has enabled us to have a co-op voice, and that of our borrowers, to inform the wider social investment sector.

It’s been wonderful to read some of the things said over and over again in the course of these interviews.  One was that ICOF was, and is, a pioneer, leading the way. The other was about the team, that no matter what trends are at play, no matter who the people are, the core of ICOF has always been the people. The team has always been made up of grounded and passionate individuals – we always try to keep our language simple, and not get lost in being banking and finance vernacular. None of us have come from that traditional banking or finance background which is kind of interesting – bringing experience of having actually worked in co-ops or small enterprises and community development roles. I personally had to learn some of the financial language but I think we always want to try and make it straightforward for our borrowers, to be inclusive and to have products that work for them. We always say we want to be partners, we ask all borrowers to become members of ICOF, because we want an equal relationship to help them grow and be more likely to come to us when there are difficulties and challenges in their business. We are doing this to be the change we want to see in the world – we want to be supportive, do things right, and that’s what makes us different.

Happy birthday to ICOF and everyone who has been involved in our first fifty years. We should all be proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re still here to tell a good tale and we’re in good shape to still be here in another 50 years, continuing to deliver on the co-op principles and values of the organisation. We achieve so much more together than as individuals and the legacy of ICOF’s work that we’re still delivering will go on beyond us all. Thanks to everyone who has been part of these fifty years, who contributed to this interview series and who joined us for our Gala Dinner in Bristol. I look forward to my invitation to the 75th anniversary party in 2048!”