Why I "do" credit unions.

Two seemingly unrelated things came together for me this week. One is that yesterday was my second anniversary of being at Vancity and my entry into the credit union movement. The other is reuniting with some of my favourite past colleagues via Facebook and catching up on where we’re all at.

Explaining to people I used to work with in Los Angeles and Seattle why I’m working at a ‘bank’, which is a far cry from the brands I used to work on like Disney and Honda is not always an easy task. I left LA to find a lifestyle that was more aligned with my values, and that path inadvertently led me to credit unions.

Before Vancity, I worked at Telus, one of Canada’s top telecommunications companies, and the main telephone provider in BC. I enjoyed working there until the strike in 2005, but I never thought of myself as part of the telecom industry. It was just a job.

But being at Vancity, I have found myself attracted to the philosophy and work of credit unions. If you want to create social change, much of that has to do with money, and that’s where getting to the money via the banking industry is actually pretty exciting.

The link between my own engagement in the credit union movement became clearer when I saw a recent post on the always insightful OpenSourceCU. They were recently honoured as the first recipient of the Credit Union Global Spirit Award for translating philosophy into actions. This is a much-deserved accolade, based on their work helping credit unions reach their potential and engage the communities they serve in their mission.

It was awarded by Carol Schillios, whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting, but about whom I’ve heard so many amazing things.

The video on their page is the pivot point, the reason so many of us are passionate about credit unions. It is about the amazing work that Carol Schillios has done on behalf of credit unions with the world’s poorest people.

I have included it below. Powerful, powerful stuff.

Telus – ensuring the future is not friendly.

One of the ways I ended up at Vancity was that I left Telus, Canada’s second largest Telecom and BC’s main phone company, during the strike of their Telecommunication Workers’ Union employees during their 2005 strike. It was an ugly affair, especially for me, as I had never before crossed a picket line and was suddenly sent away from my job as a project manager to a suburb, Surrey, which is an hour away, to run wires in a big concrete building. The whole experience was difficult and ridiculous, especially because my son was only several months old at the time and we “managers” were all required to work 12 hour days, six days a week. Between those hours and my commute, I only got to see my son on my one day off.

Needless to say, I left the company for one whose business model I respect, switched to VOIP and never looked back.

At Vancity I became a big proponent of the social web and believe strongly in having a business model where openness is widely adopted, making it easier to engage in online collaboration under the auspices of your brand. I used to use Telus as an example of a company that doesn’t have the fortitude to allow itself to leverage the social web. Now, reading Wikinomics, it’s even more clear to me that companies need to harness the power of collaboration to make their business stronger. I believe that isolation will increasingly lead to poorer performance.

But lately I’ve been feeling like I may have been too harsh with Telus. Time heals all wounds, I guess.

And then I read this excellent article in The Tyee that shows a pattern of blocking access to websites on its network, removing videos from YouTube that they may not even own, and other big-brother practices. Holy moly. I guess time wounds all heels instead. How could a company, which is one of the biggest ISPs in Canada, start shutting this stuff down. Which executives think this is a good idea? I remember when they blocked a TWU-supportive website during the strike I thought it was a horrible act resulting from maintaining an extreme position during the strike. But now, when I assume they are still trying to heal rifts left over from that strike between union workers and everyone else, it reveals something much darker about the intentions and nature of the company.

Telus is a clear example of a company that doesn’t get it. Its brand tagline is The Future is Friendly. When I worked there we used to joke that the future better be friendly, because the present certainly sucks. Anyone with experience in marketing or PR knows that a company’s tagline is their consumer promise and has to reflect reality for it to be believable. I hope there are VPs at the company who kick and scream over these actions, because it reveals the image of the company as an empty promise, something they’re trying to portray, totally divorced from reality.

The thing that boggles my mind is that in their fight for high-speed internet dominance, Telus execs should know that consumers want to be able to trust their ISP? That if the public associates Telus with blocking websites to their customers, many people would simply choose another provider for this commoditized service? And if they can’t trust them for web service, can they trust them to have transparent rates on long distance (a well documented no), or fair fees and service charges, or… well, the list just goes on and on.

I would guess that over time they will either need to wake up and reform and become more open or become a fossilized old-boys boardroom clueless as the world becomes a little more egalitarian.