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.


In the end, no banks showed up at all. It was mostly credit unions, consultants to credit unions and suppliers. One surprising thing to emerge from BarCampBankSeattle was the talk about the mission of the credit union movement and its relevance in today’s world. Didn’t expect that, but it was a vibrant, and I would argue important discussion to have.

Banks were invited, specifically Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo. I know that Ed Terpening, VP of Social Media at Wells, was planning on coming, but couldn’t make it. I look forward to meeting him at some point. But in the end BarCampBank had no bank representation. An odd state of affairs.

When we talked about innovation and supporting communities, we all thought that that was the job for credit unions. What was incredibly reassuring is that there are many people who are passionate about what credit unions can do for communities and their constituents.

We need to be vigilant to ensure that credit unions don’t become, as Jesse put it, small shitty, inefficient banks. In the end, it was a great marriage of a discussion around banking innovation and the role credit unions can continue to play in the service of people and their money. I hope the conversation continues, because it’s exciting for me to see the next generation of CU leaders engaged in the credit union mission, who see it as a movement and believe in it passionately. Sometimes I wonder if the shift from Boomers to Gen X and Y will lead to a shift away from strong credit unions supporting their communities. We had an amazing blend of younger people, new to the CU world, and some long time champions of the movement – it was an excellent cross-section. This weekend gave me renewed faith.

So far so good.

BarCampBankSeattle is off to a roaring start. I wasn’t familiar with this Open Space model, but people started by proposing different sessions they were interested in and then started grouping and discussing. Some really impressive thought leaders here, and we’re all mashing up, running ideas.

One session that kicked things off for me was “Credit Financing of International Relief & Development Projects” and we discussed some very interesting and innovative ways to get funding to needed projects in developing countries.

I’ll blog the notes into more of a thoughtful post later. Powerful stuff.

A follow up on my America Saves post

I was speaking to some people at Vancity about the issue of serving the underbanked and underserved, both of which are areas where we focus strongly. Two interesting things came back.

1> Someone in our Sustainability division (who shall remain nameless) came back with this nugget:

Money is like sex, you can have a lot of it or none of it and still have an unhealthy relationship to it.

2> Catherine Ludgate in our Community Business Banking division told me this story:

I was at a conference last week with a woman from Micro Business USA, and she was talking about the different mindsets of folks along the income spectrum. In her 30+ years of doing microlending and setting up savings programs, she said she has learned that poor and low income folk generally think of what they earn only in terms of their hourly pay (and certainly not about savings). An income cut above, the lower middle class earners think about their weekly earnings. Middle class earners think in terms of their monthly income, and upper middle class earners think in terms of annual income. The truly wealthy (however that is defined) think ahead in terms of three to five to ten year investments they will make.

Her argument was that changing how folks identified their value (hourly to weekly to monthly to annually to forward looking) is the first step in changing other behaviours, like the ability to save. And that change in thinking can lead to movement out of an income group, as the woman in the case study in the NY Times article moved.

I thought those were two good and valuable insights.

My original post is here.