Director of Community and Campaigning Rufus Olins

Our Director of Community and Campaigns is coming up to his first anniversary at the Co-op. He talks to Rachel Machin about how crucial the ‘four C’s’ are to our success: community, communication, co-operatives and campaigning.

I’m slightly nervous about this Co-op catch-up for a few reasons: Rufus Olins is not only a former journalist (he was an editor of the Sunday Times and Management Today) so my writing has to be totally on point or I’ll end up at the subs desk.

And there’s the other small fact that he heads up the department I work in – a department made up of four teams all with the Co-op difference right at their centre.

When doing my research on Rufus I stumbled across another Olins, a rather famous Wally Olins, who happens to be Rufus’ late father, described by many as the ‘godfather of branding’.

I ask Rufus if his father would’ve approved of his choice of business to work for. He answers: “He’d definitely have approved. He was fascinated by the wider role that business can play and the critical importance of socially responsive and responsible behaviour.’’

Rufus has spent most of his career managing complex organisations, many in the world of marketing and media. His last job was chief executive at Newsworks, a commercial and marketing organisation bringing together the £1.5 billion newspaper industry to work more collaboratively on a variety of projects. Today he’s proud to be working for our Co-op – an organisation he believes has ethics and values more relevant today than they’ve ever been.

Giving back to society has always mattered to Rufus. He’s given his time and expertise in the worlds of charity, the arts and education, but he says: ‘’It feels for the first time I can bring the values I have to work.’’ Here at the Co-op he’s recently joined the Board of Co-op Academies Trust.

“Our team’s vision is to lead and challenge our Co-op to live our Co-op difference, showing how this builds a stronger business and a better society.’’ The Co-op difference, he says, is there for all to see in our campaigning on loneliness, modern slavery, Fairtrade and, most recently, water. Rufus wants to see more people making the connection between business success and community success and for the Co-op to lead a change in the way people think about and report on business generally.

“We want our Co-op to be acknowledged as the most socially responsible business in the UK, to lead the Co-op movement internationally, and to be re-invented as a 21st century model for doing business. As Harvard professor Michael Porter says, businesses can earn the respect of society again. We can play a role in that.’’

“Of course nothing is possible unless we have a strong commercial performance. We’re a trading business and always have been. That underpins everything and so the Co-op difference needs to translate into results.

“Our Community work has already made an impact on our reputation and we’re reviewing our community strategy to make sure our Co-op continues to lead the way in communities across the UK. Our latest brand tracker, which looks at how we’re doing compared to other brands, shows we’re leading the way on supporting community with a score of 40 per cent, against the competitor average of 20 per cent.”

Local cause celebration day

The Co-op difference came to life on what many colleagues have called ‘their proudest day at the Co-op’ – the day we celebrated the £9m pay-out to local causes following the launch of membership in September last year.

We promised we’d shout louder, and we did, with media coverage above and beyond anything we got when we launched membership. We were also trending on Twitter.

I went to the Copplehouse Lane store in Liverpool and there were five of the local causes there, building relationships and talking about what our members’ money was making possible in the community. It was a memorable day.’’

Rufus with colleagues and local causes at Copplehouse Lane in Liverpool on our celebration day

Rufus with colleagues and local causes at Copplehouse Lane in Liverpool on our celebration day

With the second round of local causes already in place and earning our 1%, and applications for the third round of causes now open, Rufus is looking forward to building on our success.

“This is just the beginning,’’ he says. ‘’Our role in community is about far more than funding causes, it’s about bringing people together and creating a collective impact. Our Co-op difference provides us with a competitive advantage and strengthens our communities. It also provides our 4.5 million members with a voice at a time when they don’t feel listened to.’’

21st century pioneers

Inspiring communities is one of the things our new army of Member Pioneers will be doing, special people who share our passion to make great things happen locally. They’ll help bring colleagues, members and local causes together and look at developing new partnerships and alliances to share our understanding of problems and how to tackle them.

“We recruited 60 Member Pioneers who came to our AGM,” explains Rufus. “By 2020 we’ll have an army of pioneers, one in every postcode in the country.’’

“Those who came to the AGM will have seen our Member Pioneer ambassador Lemn Sissay speak. He’s a performer and poet, chancellor of Manchester University. He’ll inspire our pioneers and be their public face,” he says.

The young ones

As part of wider strategy review, the team is also working on plans to inspire young people to get involved with our Co-op and tap into their energy and hope for a better way. It’s a subject Rufus is passionate about.

“We need to get our message out to young people. We need to be relevant to them and their concerns. It was fascinating to see the recent work we did in the Community report which said that young people are more likely to contribute to community than their parents or their grandparents. So the signs are there. The need is there. And affinity to our values is there. All we need to do is unlock that appetite. They’ll help turn us into a movement again.’’

Quick-fire questions

Favourite Co-op own brand product:  Most frequent lunchtime purchase is the prawn sandwich.

In three words, Co-op culture you’d like to see: Pioneering, Purpose-driven and successful.

Top priority in the next couple of years: Demonstrating the Co-op difference builds a stronger business.

One bit of advice you’d give to fellow leaders: Listen well to members.

Proudest moment:  Welcoming our first pioneers.

Happiness is: My family. Cooking. Cycling.

Personal ambitions:  Be the best version of myself.

Join the conversation! 11 Comments

  1. We’d love to invite Lemm Sissay and Rufus Olins to come down to Bristol CLS to spread the word amongst our colleagues here – perhaps as a lunch n learn style event?

  2. Well yes it’s all great but when you take a clear-sighted look at what we actually do you’d be hard pressed to show how we are different to a plc in any meaningful way.

    Every large organisation does charity work and fund raising and politically safe campaigning – we don’t lead on that.

    We certainly don’t speak clearly about the Co-op difference and while it’s right that Rufus draws our attention to Harvard professor Michael Porter and the need for businesses can earn the respect of society again, Rufus is only able to say “We can play a role in that.’’ Note “can” not “do” .

    Still, if we’re a member-led organisation we can hope they drag us forward, we’re certainly not going to do it the other way round!

    • Hi Nico. Thanks for your comment. Rufus is right – we’re only just starting again with leading the way on community and campaigning. We obviously haven’t been able to do as much because for the last couple of years we’ve been in Rescue and Rebuild. Now’s the time we can step up our involvement. Every large organisation may do charity work but the difference is they have a cap on the ‘marketing budget’ they use to do this kind of work. There’s no limit to the money our local causes can receive through the 1% – the more members’ spend, the more local causes get. The other difference is we don’t just throw money at a charity and then walk away. Our colleagues and newly recruited Member Pioneers are developing relationships in our 1,500 communities – the places they know best – to make sure we’re meeting members’ and customers’ needs at a hyper local level. I think the point he makes is that what we’re doing is a great start but there’s obviously more to do. Thanks ^Rachel

  3. I really enjoy working with Rufus and think the clarity and passion he has brought to the co-op in this areas has been one of my highlights of the past year. The interaction with the elected members is excellent and professional and the renewed focus on campaigning under Paul and his team has reminded many of us of what we could be again. Lots to look forward to in this space as we continue to renew our co-op.

  4. We in the Co-op Academies Trust are absolutely delighted that Rufus has volunteered to join our Trust Board alongside Russell Gill, our Chair.
    As colleagues may know, we’re an educational charity set up by the Co-op and funded by the Government. We want co-op values to be at the heart of what we do, just in the same way the Co-op business does – 21st Century pioneers of education in fact!
    We benefit enormously from Co-op business colleagues volunteering to play an important role on our (soon to be ten) academy local governing bodies as well as our Board, offering our young people amazing work experience, interview practice, Fair Trade and ethical business opportunities, supporting maths and cookery initiatives and advising us on our estate, branding and energy procurement etc not to mention providing us with office accommodation in Angel Square. The list is endless! So big thanks and best wishes to Rufus – and to all the many other Co-op colleagues who freely volunteer their time and expertise and who are making a huge impact to the benefit of the thousands of young people in our care.

    • Hi Joan. That’s fantastic to hear. And it’s great to hear more about the work of the Co-op Academies Trust. Sounds like many of our colleagues are already supporting the great things you’re doing in education. ^Rachel

  5. Hi Kate. Youll hear more from Lemm soon! It’s been a busy period in the community team but there’s plenty on the horizon. ^Ian

  6. Lets hear more about Lemm Sissay. I was really excited to hear he was involved with the pioneers but when I shared my enthusiasm with my colleagues, many people hadn’t yet heard of him. I’m in Bristol. Lets stop him being a Manchester secret amongst colleagues and spread the word.

    • Hi Kate

      I agree Lemn is a fascinating man and has a lot to offer our Member Pioneers and the wider Co-op. I hope to do an interview like this with him soon! Thanks ^Rachel

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