What a co-op means today.

It has been a year since my trip to Bologna when a group of 15 Vancity staff studied co-operatives in this region of the world where co-ops are modern, big, profitable and also progressive and responsible. A new group of Vancity employees just wrapped up their adventure in Italy and from those I’ve spoken to, it sounds like they’ve had an equally amazing and inspiring time. Bringing back this knowledge and experience to strengthen our own financial co-operative is incredibly important as Vancity gets more in touch with its roots and focuses on our new vision of Redefining Wealth.

A couple of weeks back, Corporate Knights released a list of responsible companies in Canada and the top three are all co-ops. Vancity ranked third behind Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada’s equivalent of REI) and The Co-operators, a large national insurance company (whom Vancity sold its Insurance division to last year).

In thinking about co-ops in a 21st Century context, it seems to me focusing on the seven co-operative principles and our system of governance is a bit of a non-starter. It is my opinion that as co-operatives, we should be adjusting our message to fit with the times. The co-operative message will still resonate with some, but I think that to many it seems outdated and esoteric. People don’t get excited about governance, or voting for a bunch of people for a Board when they don’t really understand the role of a Board or the impact of their vote.

But there is an increased consumer focus on the behavior of the companies they deal with. Social connection equals social responsibility and people can learn more about the behind-the-scenes actions of companies than ever before. Through social media, people are used to participating, and co-ops can offer ways to participate and engage that perhaps other companies cannot.

In Vancouver, where the term 100 mile diet originated, I think we have something in common with the locavore movement. Eat local, shop local, keep your money local. When Vancity talks about Redefining Wealth, to me that’s what it means. Profits can go to shareholders in another part of the country or world, or the profits from your bank accounts, mortgage, investments and credit card can stay local and be invested back into your neighbours and community.

Vancity has become a slang word for Vancouver and the idea of “keep your money in Vancity” seems like a strong value proposition.

In the art of acting there is a practice of memorizing your script and stage directions and character attributes perfectly so you can forget it all and improvise knowing you have that base to work from. I would say the same is true here. Internalize the co-operative principles, live by them, socialize them within your co-op, and then forget them and start improvising so you can increase the relevance of this movement to fit into today’s modern, connected world.

PS: I must credit Morriss and Gene for their posts that inspired me to write this.

6 thoughts on “What a co-op means today.

  1. Morriss Partee

    William, I agree that advertising to members and potential members with the 7 co-operative principles on a stone tablet won’t really do anything for 99% of folks.

    I guess what I’m saying in reply is this, and Jill brings this up perfectly. In the U.S. anyway, the 7 co-operative principles are virtually unknown *within* the credit union world. Virtually no one even knew they existed. I certainly didn’t until about EIGHT YEARS into my experience working with CUs and it was Gene who first enlightened me!

    Jill’s experience is illustrative. All CUs in North America should adopt the 7 co-op principles alongside their own mission/vision type statement. Once these ideas are at least a part of the conversation, if not fully internalized, THEN the CU can figure out how to apply this in their daily work, interactions with members, and marketing to the outside world for growth and prosperity.

    For instance, if I wasn’t aware of Principle 6, Cooperating with other Cooperatives, I wouldn’t understand why CUs and Zucchinis make perfect sense, even though it isn’t a core profit-driven business strategy. CSA loans are never going to become the CU’s dominant line of business over auto loans and home equity, but it’s one of those things that you DO because it fits the foundation.

    I think that you are understating or under-realizing the importance of living the 7 principles because at Vancity, you are already there, working at a CU who has “gotten it” for a long time (or never lost it the way U.S. CUs have). I don’t know why U.S. CUs are clueless about the 7 co-op principles or if they ever knew them at some point in the past, I’m just reporting that they are. And if you are clueless about the principles, you can’t really be that committed to being a cooperative, right?

    Interestingly, I’m running a poll on EverythingCU right now: How important is being a Cooperative at your CU? The results from 43 respondents: “Totally” – 25; “To a degree” – 17; “We’re a Cooperative?” – 1

  2. Hi Jill. Thanks for commenting!

    I don’t know a ton about your CU, but I have long been impressed with your public commitment to the co-operative principles. I haven’t seen that done by any others in the way you have.

    I hope I haven’t misrepresented myself. I care a lot about co-ops. I have lived in, and was the Treasurer of, a housing co-op. I belong to several co-ops in town, and am proud of Vancity’s return to it’s co-operative roots, and was thrilled to be selected to experience co-ops in Bologna.

    I just think that our marketing needs to find new ways to embrace these values and demonstrate them in ways that are modern and highly relevant to today’s consumers. I think a lot of co-ops hang onto things that worked in the 70s when people cared more about AGMs and directors elections and governance models. I think we need to evolve the vernacular to ensure young people, whose values align well with ours, get what we’re doing.

    Totally agree about living your brand! Well said.

  3. I love watching you smart guys talk. 🙂 The co-operative conversation has certainly gained momentum in Credit Union Land.

    Speaking for Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union, building a framework around co-operative language has been nothing but a positive experience. We’ve been able to make the co-operative message about more than voting and governance. The 7 Principles have given us the framework to build consistency in our products, our actions and our information. More importantly, we’ve seen the impact in growing the credit union.

    I would argue that whichever platform a credit union chooses to build itself on (if there is even a decision to choose one in the first place), it should be relevant to the markets they do business in. Local, relative to banking, doesn’t mean much in Seattle. Many community banks are here today, sold tomorrow. If that isn’t enough, there’s always the fine example of WaMu. Local, relative to co-ops DOES mean something; REI, PCC Natural Markets and Group Health are based here and thrive here. Replacing “credit union” with “co-operative” won’t get you much mileage if you still struggle with living your brand and interacting with your audience (that goes for your internal audience as well).

    I have to say this about the 7 co-operative principles and credit unions; Prior to 2007, they were not a part of credit union-speak. When we began researching co-ops, those principles showed up on many co-op websites, but nothing related to credit unions. Personally, I’m glad that they are working their way into the credit union vernacular and I’m even happier that we’ve moved on from debating the use of the word, “bank” in our marketing.

  4. And thanks for bringing up our time together at the Credit Union Museum in NH. That was a terrific day!

  5. Morriss Partee

    So glad I could help spark a post! And I love Gene’s fabulous message.

    William, you are always giving me some great things to think about. I remember when you, Amy, and the little guy were visiting America’s CU Museum in Manchester NH, and you told me that the fact that Vancity is a Credit Union doesn’t mean all that much to you. (I think I’m remembering the sentiment pretty much correctly?) It could be a bank, as long as it had these great values that it does.

    My counter to this is: Do you think that Vancity would be as excellent as it is if not for the fact that it IS a credit union? Would it want to open up and be transparent via social media if not for the fact that y’all are living and breathing the Cooperative values? Banks don’t want to open up and show their guts because at the end of the day they have to show that they are increasing shareholder value, which at times is at odds with increasing customer value.

    As a marketer, you are 100% right that the marketing message is not/should not be, jumping up and down saying “we’re a credit union! We’re a cooperative!”, but instead showing the tangible benefits of these things, things that manifest themselves because of your triple-bottom line. But don’t all of these great member benefits, great things that Vancity does, originate with being a cooperative credit union?

    So I agree with your last paragraph here. The thing I would keep in mind is that while 90%+ of your members probably don’t care about credit unions per se, nor cooperatives, there is likely some small percentage that does care. The question is, do they feel taken care of by Vancity? Is it important to Vancity that these folks feel taken care of? 🙂

    • Thanks Morriss. I think our co-operative roots do drive all the things you’re saying, absolutely. I also think there are some great community banks that have a ton in common with credit unions, and we need to see them as our peers and colleagues and not a different sort of animal. And, honestly, there are some credit unions I’ve spoken with that I don’t see as having much in common in terms of values.

      In the end, our mission is to improve the communities where we live and work. Anyone else on a similar path is important, regardless of their governance structure.

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