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Co-operative development agencies – support for regional support structures, creating jobs and business growth in the social economy

A case study by Toby Johnson for the EQUAL conference Social Economy - a Model for Inclusion, Entrepreneurship and Local Development, held in Warsaw on 10-12 May 2006

Small businesses and associations need specially designed support services – as do other businesses that want to survive and develop in competition with big companies and the public sector. EQUAL project SE-43 in Stockholm, Sweden, has proved that co-operative development agencies (CDAs) are an effective form of providing both services and tools to the social economy, and also develop broad sustainable regional partnerships. CDAs can be used to develop additional support structures such as new networks, associations and institutions.

County board director meets the CDA

In summer 2000 an informal meeting took place between representatives of the regional Co-operative Development Agency (CDA) in Stockholm, KIC, and the new director of the regional development department at the Stockholm county board, Kjell Johansson.

The CDA Kooperativt IdéCentrum i Stockholms län (KIC) had without much success tried to influence the county board policy (or lack of policy…) towards the growing numbers of new co-operatives and other business in the social economy. Kjell Johansson had former experience as a director of a local People’s House, a major supplier of meeting places and conference services in Sweden and an important part of the Swedish social economy.

The meeting very soon led to the creation of a ‘social economy development group’ the same autumn. The group made a study of the size and content of the regional social economy, and set out a plan of action. One of these actions was to make an application to the EQUAL programme in 2001. The aim of the EQUAL project application was to create a method with the purpose of bringing a broad partnership together in a more focused process.

The EQUAL partnership focused on the need for new support services adapted to the special needs in the social economy, especially for small co-operatives, associations and social businesses. They had difficul-ties in finding, among other things, financing for their projects and growth, support in public procurement, and marketing of their services, product and values.

Co-operative development agencies in a key role

The two CDAs in the partnership, KIC (Kooperativ utveckling i Sverige) and SER (Social Ekonomi i Roslagen), had a very important role in the project. They have good institutional relations with the Swedish government’s business development agency NUTEK, a network relationship with a lot of organisations in the regional social economy, and they are themselves member-based associations, most of their over 150 members being new small co-operatives. KIC and SER are also connected to the national organisation of CDAs, Kooperativ utveckling i Sverige (FKU) - newly renamed Coompanion - which supports professional co-operative advisers. The CDAs get up to 50% co-financing from NUTEK up to a certain ceiling, if they can also obtain regional financing of at least the same level. KIC and SER, the county board and a regional association of local development groups were the key actors who put in the main energy into the project.

The aim was a sustainable support structure producing services from and to the social economy. Therefore the services have to be built by the sector itself and with the most important actors involved in the process. A set of working groups produced reports, proposals and action plans setting out how to change the situation for the better. The partnership discussed the proposals and most of them were implemented as new services in the region.

The "new" SLUP.SE - on the intenet

By the end of the EQUAL project the partnership had created new and better management and development methods for small co-operatives and associations, using social auditing, a manual on public procurement, a training method for leaders, a useful manual showing how to find financing and a manual “from voluntary association to social business” in the welfare sector. Finally a new broad regional association, SLUP.SE, was created including the biggest actors in the regional social economy. SLUP.SE has, as a final result of the EQUAL project with the same name, set up a website with all results, manuals and other products published in a popular way. News articles are published on several times a week and a weekly newsletter is widely distributed. The two CDAs have a co-ordinating role in and they are also very active in an EQUAL action 3 project, the Socialt företagande (social enterprises) National Thematic Group. One of the working groups in this project, led by Jan Forslund from KIC, focused on the need for different kinds of support services to social firms. He is also the chairman of the SLUP.SE association.

Not just another project

The SLUP.SE association and a partnership including the county board and the European social fund (ESF) work together in a “platform for local development with social economy”. The process began in 2000, continued with the EQUAL project, and is now linked in to the public sector’s and the government’s regular development planning process. More than 40 organisations, including two banks, are now active in and the six working groups in the “platform”. The platform also uses the website in its communication with others.

The support service of “social auditing” has been established. It involves KIC, SER and Studieförbundet Vuxenskolan (a nationwide adult training organisation) that provides tutors/coaches, and a national association to promote social auditing and a network of auditors has been newly set up. One of the partners in the project is the municipality of Värmdö Kommun. This municipality has decided to work very closely with the local and regional social economy and this is also formally expressed in a special programme for partnership with the social economy. It is active in spreading this initiative in the region of Stockholm through the platform and also at Swedish and in European level via the REVES network. The results of the Equal project are sustainable – it was not just “another project”!

Key features of the CDAs

In 2004, a member of KIC’s board, Professor Yohanan Stryjan, analysed KIC and the CDA system in a paper and concluded: “The system’s evident success and high performance can be traced back to a number of key features. These are:

  • Public baseline financing, that provides a minimum level of stability and continuity (and, thus, reliability in the eyes of important others).
  • Resource dependence on the political centre is balanced by an institutional requirement for matching financing, that motivates each LKU (CDA) to cultivate its local contacts and maintain its embeddedness.
  • A loosely coupled federative structure that allows sufficient leeway for member LKUs (CDAs) in accommodating to local demands, while handling relationships with central political levels.
  • A community of practice that stewards and nurtures its own body of knowledge and competence, and links the individuals active within the association in a professional organisation of co-operative consultants.”

The EQUAL project has enabled the two CDAs to take on more profound work in the Stockholm region.

Key aspects

Horizontal mainstreaming

One of the project’s most important goals was to create a regional support structure. The actors providing those services were mainly actors in the social economy itself. The creation of the SLUP.SE association and the social audit organisation made it possible to establish new institutions involving key actors in the region and to connect them with the process. In both cases the internet is used to spread information. The website contains an evaluation tool which will make it less expensive for small and medium co-operatives, businesses and associations to use social audit as a natural part of their development and marketing process. The website contains among many other things resources and an internet guide on how to participate in public procurement. Two videos/DVDs were produced during the project and are distributed via many channels.

Vertical mainstreaming

Representatives from KIC, SER national thematic group (NTG) entitled Socialt företagande (social enterprises), which is part of action 3 of the EQUAL programme. The NTG, led by two members of the Swedish parliament, highlights and works on tasks from six DPs in Sweden. SE-43 in Stockholm has chosen to concentrate on two issues: support structures and public procurement. In both cases the representatives in the working groups are co-operative advisers employed by KIC. Another mainstreaming result is the local programme for partnership with the social economy in Värmdö municipality. The county board’s department of regional development has implemented the results of the EQUAL project SE-43 and is trying to fulfil the original plans via the “platform for local development through social economy”.

Local development

One of the most important results related to local development of the project was the creation of a strong networking organisation for local development groups in the Stockholm region. When the EQUAL project was set up 2001 there was a minor association of this kind, which was one of the partners, Rådet för local utveckling (the local development council). Four years later, as a result of the EQUAL work, it has moved to its own office, doubled its membership and has its own financing. It is now officially a regional branch of a national organisation of local development groups. One of its local members is the municipality of Värmdö, and the local associations council, Värmdö Föreningsråd, has a deep co-operation with the local authorities.


The project really worked as a partnership right from the beginning. Even though the co-ordinator, Elsmari Fjällström, and the project secretary, Birgitta Israelsson, were employed by the county board and not by a partner in the social economy, there was no problem for small the partnership to be seen or heard. It was an open partnership and gave practical opportunities for everybody to participate. The co-ordinator did not choose to work with an inner circle, but preferred broad working groups with participants from as many partners as possible (and even from outside the partnership). One big failure should be noted: there where no immigrant organisations in the partnership. At the beginning of the project a lot of them were contacted but finally they decided to not participate as a partner.


Many partners were active in the three transnational working groups. Jan Forslund was a member of the steering group as well as Lena Blixt from the municipality of Värmdö. The transnational work must be led by professionals. Most of the interest was focused on social auditing. At the beginning of the project, SE-43 arranged a big international conference with many guests. This was important later in the process. Contacts were established not only with the trans-national partners in Italy but also in England and Scotland. It was important in the process to be able to compare different kinds of methods, tools and experiences and understand them in a national context. The understanding of the development of social enterprises was delayed in the project, because the discussion was based on a Finnish case – the Red Cross experiences in Finland. They worked on a much bigger scale and more top-down than in Sweden, while SLUP.SE worked mainly with smaller associations.


The project was supposed to create a support structure for the social economy, especially the smaller organisations and co-operatives. It was also important to give extra support to immigrant organisations. The methods used in the project activated many persons in the partnership but mostly in the developing of methods and tools – not so much in the decision-making. Social auditing was tested on the partnership itself and in a training course with ten organisations or co-ops as participants. Most of them are still interested in the method, contribute to the development work, and are spreading the results. The same method was used in other working groups. This is one of the reasons that the process is still going on. The “empowered” participants of the project were more deeply engaged, which led to a more sustainable result. This was the CDA’s aim when the project was constructed.


DP name: Stockholms läns utvecklingspartnerskap för den social ekonomi (Development partnership for the social economy in the Stockholm region) –
DP ID: SE-43
Contact: Jan Forslund
Co-operative Adviser and Managing Director KIC
Selmedalsringen 19
S-129 36 Hägersten
Tel: +46 8 447 48 03
Mob: +46 70 726 48 03
Fax: +46 8 447 48 09