Chronicle of a Governors’ Association

(A completed historical and field research project, archived at DANS easy-dataset:67764

An investigation into the importance of Heritage within the co-operative structure of the communal sickness fund ‘To Our Avail’.

The Association “To Our Avail” has operated since 1905 as a communal sickness fund for entrepreneurs in Amsterdam-North. The Association is part of the so-called Second Wave of the Co-operative Movement, initiated in Germany by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch. The German movement led to the foundation of for example the Raiffeisenbank and Local Farmer’s Bank (Boerenleenbank). In 1972 the two merged, resulting in the Co-operative RaBoBank. Since 2015 the co-operative structure has gradually been abandoned for a more centralised form of management control, occurring at a time of the emergence of a so called third wave of new co-operatives.

Chronicle of the Governors’Association is a field research project investigating the sustainability of a so-called Institution for Collective Action. A co-operative Association is an expression of such an institute. By examining the functioning of a 110-year-old Co-operative sickness fund we have aimed to identify the qualities that have ensured the long-term existence of the Association.By means of counteraction to this form of progression a renewed interest has arisen for various forms of co-operative entrepreneurship.

The rise of the Participation Society and the economical crisis of 2008 are all determinants, which have sparked this renewed interest in the commonality. Despite this interest, the principles of self-governance and cooperation are currently no longer apparent in the collective social conscience, argues Prof. Tine Moor (University of Utrecht). With the research project Chronicle of the Governors’Association we aim to contribute to safeguarding and propagating the original principles of the Society.

The emphasis of the project Chronicle of The Governors’Association lies on facilitating the process of change within the Association “To Our Avail”. In order to achieve this goal we applied the film and feedback method “Challenge for Change” as developed by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Subsequent data added to the historical research.

Hereby filmed video-interviews and reports are employed to create discourse. The data is consequently presented to the target group and generates new outcomes. The board and members of the Association “To Our Avail”’ thus form active participants in our research. The interviews were supplemented with results of historical research in order to provide the necessary context. We collaborated with experts conducting contemporary Academical Research about the functioning of Commonality in the present period, also known as the Third Wave of the Co-operative Movement.

The project The Chronicle of The Governors’Association itself is divided into three periods of which the first one covers the foundation years and the rise of the Society from 1905 till 1939. The second period deals with the Welfare-State: 1966-1985 and the third and final chapter covers the period 2005-2016 of which the latter years were dominated by the American Financial Crisis of 2008 . This crisis gradually resulted in a fundamental rethink among citizens and local communities worldwide about the actual functioning of the present-day economical principles.

Chronicle of The Governors’Association has thus become a narration of the local and the common, juxtaposed against the setting of the bigger social movements. The Association “To Our Avail” can therefore be seen as a lieu de mémoire in which “Memory” and “History” are intertwined, a relationship formerly described by Pierre Nora.

The project Chronicle of the Governors’Association is initiated by the Dutch Foundation Journey of the Razzia (Stichting Reis van de Razzia) in the context of its research programme “Journey through the Hinterland”. The project is supported by the research group ‘Institutions for Collective Action’, supported by Prof. Tine de Moor of the University of Utrecht. Masters student Joost Vinke worked as an intern on the project and provided the historical research. Also partner in the project were the Digital Platform DANS (Data And networked Services) of the KNAW (Royal Dutch Academy for Science). The project was financially supported by the Prince Bernard Culture Fund North-Holland.

The Foundation Years of Association ‘To Our Avail’: 1905/1938. 

After the abolishment of the Guilds in 1820, the co-operative idea is regenerated around 1870. The second wave had started and ‘To Our Avail’ can be regarded as part of that particular movement. This is not to say that rules and regulations where clear cut or centrally dispersed. As a grassroots association, the founders of ‘To Our Avail’ in effect had to figure out for themselves how to operate. The main conclusion which could be drawn from this first chapter of the research project is the fact that within the Association certain principles are elementary to the functioning of the organisation, such as rules and regulation, implementation, conviviality and festivities. Not all of these elements are in place at the time of the launch of the Association and have gradually evolved. It’s been a 35 year long process before the relationship between formal and informal institute finally matured. The juxtaposition between these two concepts will prove to be essential for the longevity of the Association “To Our Avail”.

The minutes reveal that during these foundation years, the Association is primarily concerned with the formal institute, with drawing up rules and regulations. By anchoring the objectives, a conservative approach to expenditure is laid down, cautiously handing out benefits from the Sickness Fund, and encouraging conviviality by catering for entertainment, fun and leisure after a boisterous quarterly meeting. The appearance of the element of entertainment contributes to an equilibrium in which all elements interact. This can be incurred from the notes from the minutes where many questions are asked regarding a possible wrongful benefit payment, and the exorbitant costs of a social function which lead to objectionable cost-cutting exercises.

In 1938 the members proudly celebrate what the Association has achieved so far. References to the difficulties surrounding the association memorize the “Founding Father’s” original grounds for initiating “To Our Avail”. The awareness of having accomplished something substantial, of having written history and having created heritage, has become manifest in the minds of the members.

The Welfare-State Years: 1966/1985.

Social-economical changes in terms of social (in)security have put pressure on the original objectives of the Governors’Union. Members try to establish if a transition towards an professional Entrepreneurs-Society, Network Alliance or plain Social Club would prove more rewarding. However, a definite choice for a new construction is not made and the Sickness Fund remains, despite a few beneficial payments, the guiding principle of the Association. The most important breakthrough in this part of the research is that the Association ”To Our Avail” responded in a resilient manner towards the imminent threat of redundancy in a hostile economic environment.

The Association functions according to the so-called ‘Friction-model’ whereby friction is administered in order to maintain the equilibrium. The idea is that within a co-operative Sickness Fund, such as the above, the objective is always in conflict with the execution or implementation of the proposed benefit system. Because, the control mechanism of the Association “To Our Avail” evolves around the correct allocation of benefit applications. Members have a critical vote in deciding whether an applying individual is granted the benefit or not. This critical judgement of fellow-members’ impairments, de facto creates a confrontation which, in order not to undermine the functioning of the Association, can not continue to predominate and thus requires a counterbalance in terms of providing positive conviviality.

These special social gatherings have changed in terms of intention during the years of Welfare-State in relation to the foundation years. Instead of the debate which took place because of the applications for benefits, the friction is nowadays created without discussing an actual application. Not being able to discuss the payments of benefits does not mean the functioning of the board can not be scrutinized. By criticizing the secondary conditions of benefit payments the original objectives of the Association remain intact. Also, the community spirit and unique identity of the Association are safeguarded. The appliance of the friction-model can be seen as an evolutionary development within this informal institute.

Throughout the years of the Welfare-State Heritage becomes a main focal point. The heritage finds it’s origin within the formal institute, as can be deferred from the minutes. In a meeting the Association recalls that the “Founding Fathers” would have never permitted a dismantling of the Association under any circumstanc. Empowered by this command the board operates as determined guardians of the original objectives and can seriously counterbalance the wisecracks and often outright impertinent suggestions of certain members to spend the cash in alternative ways. By reversing the friction model and focussing on heritage a new equilibrium is realized. The Association thus was able to counter the social-economic developments of the Welfare state which tended to make the co-operative Sickness Fund redundant.

The Participation Years: 2005/2016

Although there is in increase in membership numbers, little is changed with regard to the rules and regulations and the execution thereof within the Govs’ Association. However, there is mention of a certain inertia to which some of the members oppose. A Committee of “Wise Men” is appointed that has to advise the Association on how to safe-guard it’s existence for the next hundred years. The Committee is a product of years of discussion and requests for more substance and is the first formal attempt to encourage a transition within the Association. Alas, the advice of the “Wise Men” was sadly neglected. According to the board, most of the suggestions had already been carried out, such as building a website and the idea of allowing women into the Association was not felt to be a desirable development. A Status Quo was maintained, the survival mechanism of the Welfare-State years, still in place.

With a delay of about 7 years, the Economical Crisis of 2008 incited the Association to become receptive for change, once again. New schemes for alternative impairment insurances, such as the Bread Fund, are being compared with the original objectives and the Association’s Heritage. The necessity of the above for a small number of members was discussed and the effect upon the Association was taken into account. Introducing additional Benefit Pay-Out system could endanger the jeopardize the conviviality and the original objectives of the Association. Through the research project Chronicle of A Governors’Association we we have been able to make a significant contribution to this particular discussion within the Association. Subsequent results will probably only be evident in the long term.

The full Research Report is for researchers available upon request.

Erik de Jager, Director Foundation Journey of the Razzia (Stichting Reis van de Razzia) © 2016 Foundation Journey of the Razzia. English translation by Jeanette Tierney

This project has been made possible by a generous donation by the Prins Bernhard Culture Fund North-Holland, the Netherlands.