‘Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual’ – an industrial and provident society with charitable status

Explore is a mutual organisation which runs library services on behalf of the City of York Council. This case study forms part of the achieving efficiencies section as well as the different delivery models - libraries (mutuals) section of our online Culture Hub.

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‘Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual’ has a five-year contract to manage City of York Council’s libraries and archives services. It was set up in 2014 as an industrial and provident society with charitable status. It is one-third owned by its staff and two-thirds by the local community: community membership is free of charge and open to local residents aged over 16.

Explore worked with the Cabinet Office mutuals support programme to ‘spin out’ from the council. Being part of this programme provided essential access to legal and other support. Fiona Williams, Explore’s Chief Executive and Director, said: “We chose to go down the ‘mutual’ road because we wanted to give staff and local people more meaningful ways of being involved in our services. We have a Board of seven which includes a staff director and two community directors.”

Impact of the project

Staff have learnt many new skills, especially in finance, business and leadership. Fiona Williams said: “Working in a cultural business is very different to working in a council and engenders different ways of thinking, which can lead to different outcomes.” Explore works in partnership with City of York Council and this brings benefits for both. For example, the contract includes helping other council departments to realise cashable savings.

The freedom to act quickly in terms of decision-making means Explore can respond to new opportunities more swiftly than a council-run service can. There is a deeper relationship with local communities as they can apply to ‘own’ a share in Explore, and Explore has access to a range of skills and knowledge from its community members. An immediate saving to the council of £450,000 was made (20 per cent of the annual budget) and this has continued over the five-year contract. 

Looking to the future

The renewal of the contract in 2019 is becoming a focus for Explore and is encouraging it to review progress and plan ahead. Staff are looking to safeguard against budget reductions by exploring new income streams and developing existing ones. There is a strong focus on the need to raise funding in many different ways, including endowments, donations and commercial activity such as cafes, room hire and selling archive images through the Imagine York website.

Activity around workforce development is enabling Explore to grow future leaders from its existing staff. A Staff Advisory Group gives people the opportunity to work on projects to improve working conditions and staff wellbeing. Explore is also developing ways to grow future community directors from its membership, and is keen to recruit directors from a broad range of service users. This will strengthen the organisation and link services more deeply into the local community.

Fiona Williams said: “The responsibility of setting up a mutual can be onerous and is not to be done lightly. It has been very hard work and we have needed courage and a willingness to take risks. Having said that, we love it and would not go back.”



Key learning points

  • There is a huge difference between finance in a council and in a business. Explore had to recruit a finance manager with experience of working in a not-for-profit organisation. There is a greater focus on generating income before spending it, and the responsibility of making sure that everyone gets paid every month was a very new one.
  • The relationship between the chief executive and chair of the board is crucial: they must trust each other and work together to deliver the vision. 
  • The board needs to have a very collaborative approach, with each member contributing their particular skills and knowledge.

For further information contact Fiona Williams, Chief Executive and Director, Explore York: [email protected]