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The Plunkett Foundation is celebrating 90 years of helping rural communities to believe in what they can achieve together. Mike Perry reports.

By George! That’s it! I’ll megaphone it to the world!” These were the words spoken by Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States of America, when he heard of Sir Horace Plunkett’s plans for rural community development. Ninety years on and in a changing world, are Sir Horace’s ideas still relevant to rural communities today?
In 2009, the Plunkett Foundation, an organisation which promotes and supports rural co-operative and social enterprises in the UK and internationally, celebrates two major events: a 90th anniversary and a new chief executive.
Peter Couchman joined the Plunkett Foundation as chief executive on 20 April. Previously he had worked for Midcounties Co-operative, the third largest retail consumer co-operative in the UK formed by the merger of Oxford, Swindon & Gloucester Co-op (OSG) and West Midlands Co-op.
”The more I became involved in helping to shape the Foundation’s strategy, the more I saw that these were the solutions to the challenges faced by rural communities today. That’s why I wanted to take on this role,” said Peter.

  the opening of Mells Village Shop and Post Office in Somerset. Peter Couchman said: “I attended the opening of Mells Village Shop and Post Office in Somerset. The village turned out to see Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs open the shop. Then everyone adjourned to the village hall for a fantastic display of local produce. If ever I needed a boost to get up in the morning, it could come from Mells. There was the sheer pride (and relief) that the community had saved their local store. But this was tempered with the knowledge (and determination) that there was so much more that they could do (and I’m sure will do). If we could bottle those feelings then this movement will grow even faster.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Sir Horace Plunkett, founder of the Plunkett Foundation saw the impact of the industrial revolution on rural communities. Rural people were moving to new towns and cities in search of work and higher wages. This change was having wide ranging impact on rural communities. He saw that there were two choices for rural communities. They could either let the impacts of the industrial revolution sweep over them or, as Sir Horace advocated, rural people and rural communities should work together to address the challenges that they were facing.
Sir Horace Plunkett founded the Plunkett Foundation on the basis of three core beliefs. He believed that economic solutions are the best ways of creating positive social change, and that these solutions must enrich rural community life and that self-help is the most effective way to tackle rural needs.
“The role of the Plunkett Foundation is to find the most effective way to put into practice the beliefs of our founder in addressing the challenges facing rural communities. Each generation needs to decide which challenges it needs to tackle with these solutions,” said Peter.
Today, the Plunkett Foundation is involved in a wide range of activities that support rural communities to take control of the issues affecting their everyday lives through co-operative and social enterprise approaches.
“The Plunkett Foundation promotes and supports rural co-operative and social enterprise through various initiatives. It also works to provide an environment where they can thrive through influencing policy and working with support and funding organisations,” said Peter.
One example of such support this is the Making Local Food Work, a Big Lottery funded project which is exploring community enterprise approaches to connecting land and people through food. Over the five years of the programme, which the Plunkett Foundation is leading, Making Local Food Work aims to work with 650 local food community enterprises to enable greater access to and understanding of local food for one million people.
The Plunkett Foundation also supports the network of rural community-owned shops in the UK. There are now almost 200 rural community-owned shops in the UK and this number is increasing by around 20 per year, with four opening in March alone.
As part of its role to provide an environment where rural co-operative and social enterprises can thrive, the Plunkett Foundation works with the Office of the Third Sector and Defra to ensure that rural co-operative and social enterprises are represented in both rural and social policy and also works with both to promote co-operative and social enterprise to rural communities.
So what does the future hold? In looking to the future, the Plunkett Foundation has looked to its past and that of Sir Horace in order to shape the future direction.
The Plunkett Foundation was founded as an organisation that operates internationally and Peter believes it is at its most successful when it shares and received information worldwide. Peter commented, “The more we look, the more we at the Plunkett Foundation find rural communities rising to face similar challenges around the world. US farmers’ markets have evolved in ways that we can learn from and Canada has exciting projects to involve young people in creating social enterprises. Europe has innovation around supporting small scale farmers through agricultural co-operation. The challenges of organisational governance in Africa are uncannily similar to our own. Yet the knowledge about solutions is rarely shared between them.”
There will also be greater resources committed to communication. “We believe that co-operative and social enterprise approaches are the model for rural communities looking to take control of issues affecting their everyday lives. We therefore have a responsibility to communicate these approaches to as wider an audience as possible both in the UK and internationally.”
Peter believes that the Plunkett Foundation must build on its reputation as a centre of ideas and information. One of the Plunkett Foundation’s first aims was to become the international ‘clearing house’ of ideas on rural co-operation. “Financial markets might be unstable at present, but good ideas are a solid international currency all of their own,” Peter said. “One of our first actions has been to rejoin the International Co-operative Alliance to start to build on our legacy.”
Over the previous 90 years, the Plunkett Foundation has gone through many changes, as have rural communities both in the UK and internationally. By learning from the past, being ready for the present and looking to the future, the Plunkett Foundation are looking forward to many more years of helping rural communities to believe in what they can achieve together. Plunkett Foundation is on Facebook and you can follow Peter Couchman on Twitter.

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