The co-operative story

Choosing a public service mutual approach

An employee owned co-operative was a natural decision for CLA, the founders of NCEC. A few years prior to establishing NCEC, it had established a social housing co-operative and found it to be an empowering model which overcame some of the long-standing and complex problems associated with traditional social housing models.

In 1998, CLA held its first meeting to form NCEC. For NCEC to be successful, it needed to address the long-standing issues associated with traditional approaches to job placement, where individuals with learning difficulties felt pressured to perform tasks quickly that were not suited to their capabilities.  They were often misunderstood and excluded from making decisions which impacted their quality of life.

“A work enterprise needs to develop from its membership, not develop its membership to suit the customers. In this way, we have avoided “creaming”, that is, choosing to work only with people who are able to be immediately productive and profitable. This is a common issue with the structure of the existing employment network.”6

Establishing an employee owned co-operative was seen as the most appropriate model for people with learning difficulties enabling them to participate in decision making, undertake meaningful work and produce a tangible result which makes them feel proud and part of society.

The CLA invited local organisations, constituents of CLA and community members to come together for a formation meeting at the Nundah Community Centre6. They discussed their common challenges, helped develop a shared understanding of the problems and encouraged them to take small steps of action.

Humble beginnings: A jobs club with a couple of borrowed lawn mowers

In late 1998, NCEC started on a shoestring: a few hundred dollars in membership fees, donated space, administrative support from CLA, and a couple of borrowed lawn mowers6.  The original proposition was of a ‘jobs club’ to generate a range of opportunities for people with learning difficulties to undertake odd jobs such as garden maintenance as paid work. Jobs were identified and allocated to worker members. The work was intended to be part-time and casual to reduce the burden on worker members and infrastructure7.

CLA provided assistance through funding a coordinator position out of its own reserves for one year and servicing several small start-up loans7. In-kind support was provided by Forester’s Community Finance, housing the parks and maintenance crew in its offices. A range of small grants and donations were provided by local community organisations.  The relationship with CLA was symbiotic; CLA’s constituents were given preference for membership and employment opportunities in NCEC in return for CLA’s contribution10.

NCEC had an initial membership of 16 individuals and 5 community organisation members. Initially, Dave Langdon, a social work student and Dave and Jo-Ann Green, two local residents acted as supervisors, supporting worker members on occasional jobs (mowing lawns and washing cars) that came from within the NCEC organisational membership. All of these jobs were one off jobs and equipment was purchased as needed. The administration of NCEC was simple with one ledger book, a receipt book and an invoice book to manage the business7.

There was an understanding at the planning stage that working with people with lower productivity was going to make it difficult to operate a profitable business. However, the NCEC’s aim was to break even where possible and seek external funding to meet the gap between revenue and costs. Without capital or infrastructure, NCEC initially focused on one-off jobs that arose from NCEC’s membership network. It was able to secure a few non-recurring grants to keep going and in 1999 generated income of $2,000 while providing infrequent casual work for five worker members6.  In 2000 CLA again funded the coordinator’s position for a year, and subsequently another two-year grant was secured.

Partnership with Brisbane City Council

A key turning point was the decision by the Brisbane City Council to contract with NCEC for maintenance of three small city parks. This gave the co-operative  a steady contract of meaningful work, along with an excellent source of revenue and a profile in the community. Prior to establishing a social procurement contract with NCEC, all the parks in the Council area were maintained by a large multi-national contractor. While NCEC could not compete against such a large provider, a local asset manager took the time to explore the opportunity. Together with the Council CEO they championed the cause for contracting NCEC. Acting as a pilot, the contract successfully demonstrated the value of NCEC to the Council, who then amended its procurement practices to allow for social considerations in its selection process.

The revenue generated by long-term park maintenance contracts provided sustainable revenues in those vital first years of establishing NCEC and also significantly reduced the workload of its coordinator. The initial set-up of having a coordinator to find odd jobs required significant time to manage and did not allow for the flexibility required to meet the needs of the members. The larger contracts provided substantial benefits to NCEC, particularly reducing the number of customer relationships needing to be managed, leaving more time for coordinators to support the growth and development of its members7.

On the beginning of the partnership with Brisbane City Council…

“It was fantastic for us. Just even doing that initial $3000 contract – that meant that we could get people who were very unskilled to go and do the same job again and again and again, so they were able to develop their skills and learn on the job. We were able to use machinery that was at a level that our people were able to use – so we used hand mowers because they couldn’t use more complex machinery. It was easier to work with one customer (the Council) because for that $3000 we would have had to find 15 to 20 individual customers, so it was easier to organise, and it was a reasonable rate. It’s been fantastic for the people here – it’s been one of the most significant things that’s happened in these people’s lives. We’re talking here about 15 guys who had been unemployed for 10 to 15 years on average. This was a very significant opportunity,”

NCEC (cited in The Centre for Social Impact, Foresters Community Finance, Social Traders 2010).


Developing the model – Espresso Train Café and Catering

After NCEC was established and operating, CLA identified a large number of constituents who were unable to undertake the work required in the parks and maintenance and who were interested in pursuing opportunities in hospitality. This became the next growth area for NCEC, opening a café and catering business with further support from CLA, funders, small loans and donations. Espresso Train Café and Catering was opened in 2005 to provide employment opportunities to a broader set of worker members.

Sharing the Model – Community Partnerships

The success of the NCEC has only increased their activity. In recent years partnership opportunities with individuals, social enterprises and refugee groups have shared NCEC’s valuable experience through ‘peer to peer’ enterprise development. A key success was the ‘Good Feed Trailer’, a mobile caravan that was established through crowd fundraising. It was set up as a way to raise money for the cooperative, provide a training space for people with disabilities and as a resource to offer to refugees and asylum seekers to use in the trial of their own food businesses. All this hard work has paid off. In 2015, NCEC became the Social Enterprise Council of Australia’s ‘Best Small SE’ and in 2016 they were a finalist in the ‘Innovation’ category for their Peer to Peer enterprise development work.

From its humble beginnings, NCEC now provides a range of commercial services to businesses, government and community members in the inner north-east Brisbane region. With support from local community organisations, businesses and governments, NCEC has grown to over 20 people with learning difficulties holding a range of part-time roles which generates over 5,000 hours of work annually and more than $550,000 from its products and services.

Figure 1– The evolution and growth of NCEC