The Co-operative Group was motivated to set up the Co-operative Enterprise Hub by its core belief of "cooperation amongst cooperatives". With 5.5 million members, it is the largest cooperative in the UK and, as such, believes it has a duty to support new and developing enterprises.
The hub was set up to address the concern that those interested in using a cooperative model for their business were not being properly directed to specialist advice. The group wanted to reverse the decline in the number of cooperatives being set up - only 104 registrations were made through Co-operatives UK in 2007; there were 214 in 2002.
The group had been offering cooperative sector grants to businesses but decided that advice and training was also needed. The strategy for the hub was developed in December 2008 and, since August 2009, more than 400 applications have been received.
The hub offers applicants four days of free business advice and support when setting up their enterprises. The advice is delivered by regional cooperative development professionals. Once an application is received, the lead partner for the region concerned assesses the business's needs and recommends training in a specific activity.
When the training has been completed, the consultant can propose a financial support package. This can be a grant worth up to £5,000, which must be taken in conjunction with a loan to help the organisation move away from grant dependency towards sustainability.
According to an evaluation of the project, 41 per cent of businesses said they had grown since their involvement with the hub, and 47 per cent said the service was of "significant benefit" in helping to grow or start the business.
Businesses come to the hub for advice on areas such as strategy, employment, the law and governance, and assistance with business plans.
One beneficiary of the scheme is the Hudswell Community Pub Initiative. Hudswell, a village of about 250 people near Richmond in North Yorkshire, has no shop or post office. When the village pub was going to close in 2008, the villagers decided to get together and buy it. The hub helped the villagers to register the enterprise and develop a business plan.
Martin Booth, the secretary of the initiative, said: "The flexible nature of the enterprise hub allowed us to bring the project together."
Lila Dowie, corporate partnerships manager at Anthony Nolan and one of the category's judges, said: "The Co-operative Enterprise Hub offers an innovative, sustainable business model. The combination of advice and non-grant support offers ongoing benefits to voluntary organisations."