The Neighbourhood Cooperation is a network organisation of and for entrepreneurs in the disadvantaged Afrikaander neighbourhood in Feijenoord that aims to stimulate local entrepreneurship and employment. It was founded in November 2013 as a long-term, subsidy-free community facility by the Freehouse Foundation in collaboration with research institute Labyrinth and the platform for arts and society Cal-XL. It targets local entrepreneurs and local residents, particularly those distant from the labour market. The main goals of the Cooperation are to generate local social, cultural and economic capital and to keep these capitals circulating locally (Wijkcooperatie, n.d). It is the aim of the initiative to make profit, of which half will be distributed to members, 25 per cent will be invested in the Neighbourhood Cooperation and 25 per cent will be used for organising local cultural activities (Wijkcooperatie, n.d.).
The Neighbourhood Cooperation seeks to achieve its main goals in three ways. First, it wants to stimulate, attract and generate work for its members: local entrepreneurs, businesses and residents [Coordinator, Neighbourhood Cooperation]. Jobs and tasks for the Cooperation are acquired from its extensive professional network of 300 public, private and non-profit actors who operate in the Afrikaander neighbourhood. For instance, members of the Cooperation offer their services to local care homes, cleaning organisations, as well as municipal design, marketing and communication and maintenance services. Work is also generated by stimulating individual members to collaborate and by organising cultural events (Wijkcooperatie, n.d.). Second, the Cooperation seeks to foster entrepreneurship among local residents by offering members internships, jobs and training. Residents also receive professional guidance by other members, for instance to commercialise their talents (Wijkcooperatie, n.d.). Finally, in building Het Gemaal, the initiative offers work and meeting spaces for members, partners and other local residents and entrepreneurs to rent at low cost.
The Cooperation exists of a management, an executive and a supervisory board, professionals, and members. The management board is ultimately responsible for the Cooperation. The supervisory board supports the executive board. The professionals are 5 freelance workers (3.5 fte), mostly of the Freehouse foundation, who run the project start up. Amongst others, they attract jobs and tasks of external parties and distribute them among members. Members include natural or legal persons. The Cooperation currently has 40 ‘active local residents’, and 12-15 local entrepreneurs, including merchants, welfare foundations, creative businesses and social enterprises, such as the Neighbourhood Kitchen and Freehouse itself (Wijkcooperatie, n.d.: 11; Coordinator, Neighbourhood Cooperation). In the future, the initiative strives to comprise about 60 and 75 local entrepreneurs and residents respectively. The neighbourhood cooperation is composed of sub cooperation’s with different functions (e.g. work, work administration, activities for young people), which members may use for their own benefit (within the goals of the cooperation). A sub cooperation for services and sub cooperation for young people, a ‘Young Peoples Cooperation’, will be setup within a year.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
In two ways, the Neighbourhood Cooperation uses diversity as a strategy to achieve its goals. First, it seeks to generate more local employment and stimulate entrepreneurship by connecting local residents and entrepreneurs, with a diversity of skills, ideas, cultures and knowledge, an interviewed coordinator argues. Together, the members are more visible to potential clients, they have a wider professional network through which they can obtain jobs and they can better support one another. Second, the Cooperation sees and wants to develop the entrepreneurial potential of local residents with distance from the labour market:
‘Who looks at the [disadvantaged] neighbourhoods in large cities, with numerical and financial glasses, will initially see poverty, disadvantages and other threats. Yet, the Neighbourhood Cooperation has eyes for the large diversity of cultures, talents, knowledge and skills of residents. It sees the city as a large market for her [the Neighbourhood Cooperation’s] ‘product’. By means of work and other services and products, the Neighbourhood Cooperation sees the opportunity to enlarge the self-organising ability of people and to counteract the [current] waist of talent’ (Wijkcooperatie, n.d.: 4).
By highlighting the economic value of entrepreneurs and residents of a disadvantaged area, the initiative seeks to fill a niche in the economy of Rotterdam, and the Netherlands.
Main factors influencing success and failure
Although it is not possible to determine the extent to which the initiative is successful, as the project is still in the phase of starting up, we can identify several factors that enable the initiative to achieve its goals. First, the initiative recognises that different members and partners have different needs, interests and abilities. By offering customised memberships, the Cooperation can attract a wide variety of local actors and maintain an extensive professional network. The structure of the organisation allows participants to connect, despite of their diverse business interests, entrepreneurial experience, skills and knowledge. Second, the wide range of partners who the Cooperation relies on will create more (financial) stability for the Cooperation and allow the initiative more freedom to make independent decisions. Finally, according to an interviewed coordinator, professionals who run the Neighbourhood Cooperation fulfil an important role in the project’s success. He argues that the following competences of professionals are particularly important: the ability to recognise talents in people and to collaborate with fellow leaders and members, an extensive (local) professional network, a motivation which is based on social rather than financial rewards; and the ability to tolerate financial uncertainty.
So far, the initiative faces three main challenges. First, the initiative has just started up and still needs to grow. The initiative is currently positioning itself in the community and local economy and attracting members. Due to its diverse range of work, a coordinator explains that it is sometimes difficult for the target group to label what the Neighbourhood Cooperation can offer them. Second, the initiative is currently run by professionals from the Freehouse foundation. But, it is the aim to transfer the tasks of the executive board and professionals to local residents and entrepreneurs. Therefore, the Cooperation aims to involve, guide, and train residents and entrepreneurs of Rotterdam South. Nevertheless, an interviewed professional explains that recruiting local residents and entrepreneurs who are able and willing to perform complex and specialised managerial tasks is challenging. Finally, in this phase of the project, attracting sufficient jobs is sometimes difficult. A professional explains that eminent local companies and organisations such as housing corporations and the district government should grant the Neighbourhood Cooperation jobs for the initiative to become more successful.
The Neighbourhood Cooperation is an innovative, private initiative for upgrading disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods. It recognises and uses the idea that residents and entrepreneurs of the Afrikaander neighbourhood have social, cultural and economic value, despite of their socio-economic disadvantages. The initiative offers local residents a way to commercialise their qualities. By joining forces, it can give local entrepreneurs better economic opportunities. The customised memberships can allow a wide variety of businesses and people to join. Diverse professional networks of members and partners can bring in more jobs. Since the initiative is still starting up, it is too early to formulate more stringent conclusions.
Image: De Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie