Knives and forks, a community investment co-op.

In my role at Vancity, I think a lot about an inclusive, sustainable and also vibrant local economy. And I am a hypocrite.

Oh, I’m not alone, all my colleagues and peers are hypocrites too.

We support local businesses. Especially businesses that create a local food economy, hire people with barriers to employment, support new Canadians as they settle so they can be productive and happy in their new country, help companies trying to reduce the carbon emissions they put into the environment and help people reduce the carbons they emit in their lives.

Why are we hypocrites? Our personal investments can’t be put into these kinds of companies. Instead, at best, our mutual funds can screen out companies whose ethics we disagree with. But you can’t screen out everything we disagree with or there’d be almost nothing left to invest in. Big banks? No thanks. Oil and gas? Uh-uh. Resource extraction? No way.

Assuming we’re all investing in socially responsible investments, we’re investing in national and multi-national companies that are moving along a spectrum towards greater sustainability. That’s better than putting our hard-earned money capitalizing companies that we don’t support, endorse or whose practices we actively disagree with. But the government says we can’t invest in the local food market down the street trying to bring local food to our community. (No one sums this up better than Michael H. Shuman.)

The government says we can go to the casino down the road and gamble away our life savings. Sure, that’s allowed. But putting some retirement savings into a local business we can touch and shop at and support? That’s verboten.

Until now.

12072555_1168714549823067_2646994795263451844_nSay hello to the Knives and Forks Community Investment Co-op – it’s the newest co-op that I’m a member of. It uses the co-operative structure to allow ordinary people (aka: unaccredited investors) to invest increments of $2,400 into local businesses after becoming a co-op member for a $100 membership share purchase. Knives and Forks focuses on local businesses involved in the local food economy. Restaurants, growers, producers, value-add suppliers, and so on.

It’s a needed addition to our options as local BC citizens trying to support the businesses that we believe in. A central tenet of investing is to invest in companies whose products you use and enjoy. As much as I love Apple and enjoy their products and am proud of their major leaps in environmental sustainability, I don’t know them in the same way that I know my local, organic grocer that I go to every week and can chat with and ask for products that are relevant to me and my family. Or a local butcher, fishery co-operative, raspberry farm, etc…

That’s the best kind of investment.

Originally published on the Co-op Water Cooler.

Serving remote communities

I’ve been at Vancity for almost 10 years. In those years, I’ve worked on many exciting, innovative and impactful projects. Recently I worked on one that has meant more to me than almost any other.

Last summer, three rural and remote communities in BC lost their financial institutions. In these days of the populace being (understandably) angry at banks, we sometimes overlook the need for a community to have a local banking option. Without the presence of a local financial institution, people have to leave their communities to do their banking.

Last summer a small group of us at Vancity (including Stewart Anderson, our Community Investment Manager accountable for Aboriginal Partnerships) started talking to the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, off the coast of northern Vancouver Island. We saw that their local economic resilience was severely damaged without a local FI. People were forced to take an expensive ferry ride off-island every time they needed to do their banking (or help their elderly parents do their banking). This took up a good chunk of their productive day. It also took more money than you might guess out of the local economy. When people have to leave the island for their banking, they’re pretty likely to get their hair done, pick up their hardware and groceries, or fill up with gas while they’re in a bigger city.

Without a local banking option, fast forward, say, ten years and the community will see many businesses shutter, and the number of tourists decline. Small communities can’t afford that. Honestly, no one can.

We began working on a mutually beneficial arrangement that could sustainably support the needs of the community. In the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay, we found great partners with whom we knew we could build a strong partnership based on reciprocity – a partnership steeped in the co-operative principles.

On May 20th we opened our 59th branch on Cormorant Island, striking up an important partnership between Vancity, the ʼNa̱mǥis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay.

What makes us think we can support a rural and remote community when others haven’t been able to? It can be summed up in one word: Intentions.

If our intentions are to put maximizing our profits above anything else and run each branch exactly the same regardless of the unique community needs in which it exists, then I would predict our success to be low. We began instead with asking our potential partners, “What do you need?” We kept our focus on the needs of the community and then brainstormed how we might serve their needs. We never lost sight of the ultimate prize, which was local economic resilience on Cormorant Island. With that in mind, we then figured out how to solve their problems while still earning a return from the arrangement.

This isn’t about a hand out. This is a hands-together model. If this was charity, then it would result in a relationship with an asymmetrical power dynamic. This would lead to failure, I am sure, especially given the horrible history of how the First Nations have been treated. It would also create the risk that if the branch lost money continuously, at some point Vancity could decide to change direction.

Time will tell if our business case was correct and whether we can run the branch and serve the needs of the community sustainably for all partners involved. I certainly believe we’ve got the right ingredients for tremendous success and support for a community that requires independent economic resilience. I know we’re going to learn a lot from doing things differently in the process.

Originally published on the CU Water Cooler.