A New Website Collective

by Chris Dornan on August 14, 2008

At CHIBAH we have had websites very much on our mind.   Most importantly, we needed to sort out our own website, but also some of our member co-operatives were looking to launch new public websites and internal intranets. (An intranet is a digital home for the co-operative’s documents accessible to the membership.)  This has prompted us to look more widely at what other co-operatives were doing, including some secondary co-ops and service providers.

Where we are now

The picture that has emerged is a fairly clear one.

  • There are not very many co-operative services being provided in this area.
  • Co-operatives generally provide little in the way of a public website, if anything at all.  I suspect that there are even fewer co-operatives operating intranets.
  • The websites that are provided are clearly provided by their members.
  • The service providers do not seem to be very internet-oriented.  The internet is presumably not their primary means of communicating and working with their clients and they don’t offer much in the way of internet services (e.g., website/internet design and hosting) for their members.
  • Some of the people taking independent advice were being advised to spend substantial sums of money (thousands) on developing a corporate website and intranet.  It is not clear how much of this budget was set aside for training nor to what extent the co-operative would remain dependent upon the service provider for website maintenance.

For people living in mature co-operatives having a well-developed internet presence may be desirable but probably not a high priority.  However the world in general is becoming increasingly internet-shaped so this could change (or maybe notfuturology is after all an inexact science).

For co-operatives and secondaries that are less establishedthose that are 100% oriented towards development, like in our case, Eco-op Lewes, Monkey Puzzle, Random,  and indeed CHIBAHthe situation is
different.  They typically don’t live together, don’t have an office with a filing cabinet and PC so have to get by by combining the personal filing systems of the founders and reps.  Shell co-operatives also have to persuade various people in authority that they are a viable organisation that can be trusted to deliver public housing.  To that end having a well-organised website starts to look less like a trendy accessory and more like a strategic necessity to achieve the organisation’s primary objectives.

Development, development, development

The buzz is that the political gods may currently be favouring co-operative housing.  If we in the co-operative housing movement think we have an opportunity to carry out development work then perhaps we should be looking to strengthen our skills in this area.  This is what we are looking to do at CHIBAH and we are using our own website and the websites of our member co-operatives as pilot projects.

Housing co-operatives don’t generally need the latest in dazzling, corporate websites.  They are expensive to build and maintain and are often not as flexible as their less-flashy relations.  We are looking for competence not extravagance.  Co-operatives don’t need to win website arms-races with other widget manufacturers but to professionally communicate the co-op’s personality and up-to-date information on a modest budget.

Our objective with the CHIBAH website is to evolve the website into a professional and mature website in response to feedback from our members, and work out how to do the same for our members and other co-operatives.

I believe that there is no need to spend an enormous amount of money to get a decent-looking and maintainable website, provided that you know what you are looking for.  There are a variety of excellent free or inexpensive packageswe are focusing on Google Apps, WordPress/Thesis at the moment, but there are many other candidates.  It is possible to get reasonable results quickly with these packages and then refine and tailor the layout once the basics are mastered and once you have some feedback from the members.  As these systems do a good job of keeping the content separate from the layout, it ought to be possible to refine the design without having to revisit the content of the site much.  The key is getting over the initial ramp.

Once a good decent website has been built and some confidence and familiarity with the technology has been established, it will easier to assess whether a more funky, fully-customed design is worth the cost and effort.

A New Collective

At CHIBAH we are looking to develop the websites of our member co-operatives and spread the skills for building and maintaining websites.  We are looking for partners in the co-operative housing community to spread these technologies into other regions.  We believe the fastest and most effective way to do this may be to work with other service-providers and co-operatives to develop websites and intranets, providing a starter kit and maintenance that could include the following elements:

  • domain registration;
  • website hosting;
  • software licensing;
  • website/blog setup and customisation;
  • intranet/email setup;
  • training;
  • graphic design;
  • regular backup of the website and blog;
  • ongoing support.

Using first-generation website technologies and traditional business models this would have been horribly expensive and well beyond the means of most co-operatives.  However with the new technologies we believe it is possible to deliver this kind of package with a fairly modest outlay (hundreds rather than thousands of pounds).  With the initial investment made, the running costs could be modest indeed (maybe 10s of pounds p.a.) if we can develop a good enough support networkthis is actually the way support is generally provided for non-corporate users of internet packages and services.

What Do You Think?

So what do you think?  Would you like to develop your website?  Do you think it is important or a big distraction from the real priorities of housing co-operatives?  Do you know of any good website services providers?

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