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.

Illuminating the network.

For several years at Vancity, from the time I was accountable for digital services and started working on initiatives to engage and strengthen community, I’ve been talking about illuminating the network. The more I learned about co-operatives, the more this idea grew. Localty

As a financial co-operative, Vancity has a great opportunity to continue to connect our members with each other, with our business members (businesses and organizations who rely on Vancity for their financial services and advice) and business members with each other. Lots of opportunity.

Recently, a project I’ve been working on for the past few months with some brilliant and capable colleagues launched as a test and learn pilot in Victoria, BC. Localty MapThe project is called Localty, because what else are you gonna name a loyalty program focused on local purchasing?

Localty is a mobile web platform connecting our members and the public to discover Vancity business members, and encourage them to promote these local businesses via social media and to shop locally. We want to encourage more people to steer some of their purchases away from multi-national chains and big box stores to small, local businesses.

Studies show that when people shop locally, there is a multiplier effect for that community, where more of their money stays local and stimulates local job growth and has positive outcomes for the environment and local infrastructure.

Localty BadgeI am excited about Localty because it is a pilot that could create significant local investments by our members into their local economies.

I am also encouraged by the way we created the program. The small team worked on it for three months, and are piloting something that shows potential but is by no means fully baked. The version we launched isn’t a full app, but a mobile website, so we could get something delivered quickly to start learning what works and where we misjudged our assumptions.

We added gamification elements, where people unlock badges and earn entries into winning coupons to spend at any participating local businesses. This way, we will quickly learn what it will take to shift people’s behaviours to spend more of their money at local stores and services. Eventually what we learn could influence other loyalty and rewards programs we currently have or are considering.

If we’re successful, what better way is there to bring our values-based banking model to life and show off our co-operative network, while adding real value to our business members, the general community and back to Vancity. I see this as an amazing win-win-win.

What do you think?