The experience of NCEC in establishing a successful and viable co-operative highlights a number of important lessons in establishing an employee-owned co-operative14.
1. Match the worker members’ needs with the community’s needs: “Don’t wait, just give it a go…. People want work, the community wants to offer work – match the community’s need with the people’s resource and see what happens14.”
2. Slow beginnings: NCEC grew at a pace that suited its worker members. The slow beginnings enabled NCEC to learn what best supported its worker members and to build capacity and capability at a pace that did not create too much pressure. During the course of operating, it may be necessary to slow things down as resources and money fluctuate over time.
3. From small things, big things grow: Focusing on one job at a time and doing that job well has been key to building a viable pipeline of work. From each successful event or completion of a contract, word of mouth recommendations have led to new work.
“Our stories don’t just gain the attention of funders. Most of our jobs have come from an NCEC member or customer talking to an acquaintance about NCEC and that person then offering us some work. This has led on average to 70 – 80 per cent of our annual income being derived from trade6”.
4. Relationships are fundamental: “Workers flourish through the connections they make at work and the confidence and esteem they bring to existing relationship14.” In addition to the relationships people make working and running the co-op together, NCEC includes opportunities for social activities. They also build in social aspects to the parks they maintain.
5. The importance of social procurement: Local governments and businesses can play an important role in supporting the financial viability of co-operatives. In the case of NCEC, the contract with Brisbane City Council was key.
6. The importance of balancing participation and production: Creating a supportive and inclusive working environment for both worker members and support staff is sometimes consciously traded off against productivity. The work can be resource intensive and draining for supervisory staff requiring them to take breaks by doing other work. However, this can impact on the bottom line of the business as this is often non-income generating work. Finding the balance between participation and productivity is a constant challenge.
7. The necessity of ongoing financial support: Balancing participation and productivity can be challenging, particularly in providing meaningful work for people with learning difficulties. Ongoing financial support may be required to assist co-operatives long-term viability, but at a fraction of the cost to government of traditional employment services organisations.