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Learning from Catalonia – Suara Co-operative’s model of participation and inter-co-operation

Date: 06.09.21 |Categories: Exchange, Featured |Tags: ,

In July, E3M hosted its third online meeting between E3M social enterprise leaders and colleagues from Suara Co-operative and its partners*. In the session we explored Suara’s model of employee participation and empowerment, and how it co-operates with other social economy organisations in Catalonia through the CLADE group.
An employee led co-operative based in Barcelona, Suara has 1,200 members and 4,500 staff, providing a range of care services, education, and preventative and support services across Catalonia. Over 40 years, it has developed a powerful co-operative model, employing co-operative principles to carry out its mission of social transformation.

We heard how, for Suara, people are the priority, not money, and therefore participation is not just a tool to achieve economic goals, but a human right to allow people to feel good and to grow. Participation is the basis on which the co-operative is organised and so requires a different kind of management to a commercial business. It is “to decide and do with others”. The aim is to provide people with tools and knowledge, so they can participate co-responsibly in decision-making, and transmit the co-operative’s mission and values. It is a path, not a goal.

Participation involves a careful balance between a person’s responsibility as a member or employee of the co-operative and their own personal situation or “moment in life”. There has to be a balance between the participation of individuals, teams and the whole co-operative.

Suara’s model involves participation on four levels. At a corporate level this includes: a member’s capital contribution to the co-op, setting the budget and annual plan and its follow-up, and approving the annual accounts. This is done directly through general assemblies and indirectly by electing the co-operative’s board. At a strategic level, members co-create and approve the co-operative’s strategic objectives. At an operational level, the objective is for the self-management of individuals and teams to reinforce autonomy and responsibility, decisions are taken at the lowest possible level. At the community level, there is participation in the social life of the co-operative, which builds trust, knowledge and a sense of belonging – the pillars for co-operative working and teamwork. Some activities are organised by the co-operative and others take place informally.

The model is sustained by four key elements. There is a participation plan, with a schedule of activities throughout the year, including everything from virtual coffees with the board and virtual visits to other services, to the preparation and carrying out of the general assemblies of all members that take place twice a year. The plan is supported by a participation team of three professionals dedicated to making participation a reality. They have developed a digital platform to facilitate participation. Planned before Covid, but accelerated in its development by the pandemic, members can use this to join in, develop activities and give feedback, and has been used to carry out two general assemblies. Finally, the model is supported by a mentors programme, where members with some years of experience support new members in their first year, helping them to participate and integrate into the co-operative.

Colleagues from Suara were clear that they saw the model as helping to give the co-operative an advantage over private business competitors. We learned how “base teams” involving all those in a service area work with finance, HR and other central office staff to jointly respond to tender opportunities. Sometimes they have to take very difficult decisions but, because of the way everyone is involved, this has very powerful results. More generally, because the opportunity to participate helps people to grow and develop and they are committed, it makes the co-operative stronger and more competitive.

We also learned how Suara operates as part of a group of Catalan social economy organisations called CLADE. There are 11 organisations involved, mainly co-operatives from different sectors that share a vision for social transformation, using their profits to achieve social change. They work in agri-food, culture and communication, education, care services, and social and mutual security. They have a combined turnover of €367m, €4.7m profits, 1,792 employee members, 900,000 consumer members and 6,385 employees. While the turnover and profits are significant, the most important thing for CLADE is the people and the role they play with clients and users, putting quality at the centre of their actions.

Broadly, the members of the group get four things from being part of the group:

  1. To take advantage of inter-co-operation – the coordination of individual interests within the group to look for business synergies. This is done through special interest groups in areas like finance, human resources, communication and corporate responsibility.
  2. To strengthen their influencing capacity, especially in relation to public authorities and institutions, as a stakeholder to be taken seriously.
  3. To gain greater visibility, through the sum of their energy the partners can gain individually, increasing their opportunity to have influence as part of a group.
  4. To have influence in building a social model of transformation. They share the same principles and values, and bring strengths from different sectors.

They undertake actions through the alliance developing common projects, often through the creation of secondary co-operatives. An example of this is “”, which is promoting consumer water co-operatives for the public supply of water, based on replicating a model developed by one of the CLADE members called Comunitat Minera Olesana, in a medium sized Catalan town called Olesa de Montserrat. Another is the “Social Economy Observatory 21” where CLADE’s members are jointly funding research into future scenarios for society and the role of the social economy. About six years ago, Suara and two other CLADE members in the education sector formed “Creixen Educacio” as a secondary co-operative to create a schools group. They now have three schools in different parts of Barcelona and are currently building a fourth. CLADE members have also co-operated in the application of a tool to measure social value, developed by Spain’s Deusto University.

What really stood out in the presentations and discussions was the way that Suara has developed such a powerful model for delivering its vision and mission that puts people, both members and all its employees, at the heart of the businesses. It is an example of how co-operative principles can be effectively put into practice. It has a very clearly articulated participation model, developed with 40 years of experience, that encourages and supports participation at different levels, and invests resources in the people, time and the tools to make this a success. In turn, this is the key to the viability of the enterprise. It is made stronger and more successful in achieving its social mission by working with other like- minded complementary organisations in the Catalan social economy.

To learn more, you can watch a video of the E3M leaders’ session here.

*In this session, there were contributions from Suara members: Jordi Picas, Director of Innovation, Monica Vasquez, Director of the People Management Department, Dunia Rosello, Director of Marketing and Communication, Rosa Castillo, Participation Expert, Laia Bonsatra, Director of People Development, and from David Cos, President of the CLADE Group.