MADISON, Wis. (8/19/15)--Robert King, senior business development specialist at Salal CU, Seattle, likes to joke that Central Food Co-op was the credit union’s "beta test" in launching member business services.
The Seattle-based food co-op was among credit union’s first business services members, experiencing all the minor hiccups along the way that designation implies. But the relationship between Salal CU and Central Co-op more than weathered the little bumps and has steadily developed over the last decade.
Salal CU initially recruited members of the Central Co-op the old fashioned way; by setting up a table on its premises and promoting the credit union’s products and services. The credit union also advertised in the food co-op’s bi-monthly newsletter. Slowly but surely, Central Co-op and Salal CU identified with each other.
“It’s turned out to be a great relationship for us,” King told News Now. “Most of their employees and a lot of their members are members of the credit union and now we’ve expanded the services we offer them. They’ve grown with us.”
Making a Difference
Daniel Quinn-Shea, finance director of Central Co-op, also serves on Salal CU’s supervisory committee. Quinn-Shea said relationships between cooperatives such as the one between Salal and Central Co-op can make a positive difference in local economies.
With their democratic structure and not-for-profit models, cooperatives give consumers more control overhow their money influences the community than virtually any type of business model, he said.
“I think cooperative economies make sense," Quinn-Shea told News Now, because a cooperative's members are, in fact, the cooperative's owners and have an ability to influence the organization through the democratic structure of the coop and through economic participation.
“Those are powerful things that I think are needed in our economy today, (where otherwise)…it seems like a lot of power is consolidated in just a few organizations. Cooperative business models can make a difference.”
Cooperation among cooperatives is one of the principles of the cooperative movement. Credit unions have a sterling reputation for collaboration with one another, but their potential for cooperation with non-financial cooperatives remains largely unrealized.
The National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) hopes to turn some of that potential into results. NCBA is currently piloting Operation Connect, a program that pairs credit unions and rural electric co-ops. Members of rural electric co-ops who have trouble paying their bills will be referred to a credit union for financial counseling and possible assistance.
The philosophy behind the project is that as both organizations are cooperatives and locally based, they share a common interest in helping their community. For the rural electric co-ops with financially challenged members, the collection, disconnect and reconnect process is costly and debilitating for everyone involved.
The project’s aim is to end that cycle, and improve the quality of lives of electric co-op members by promoting financial literacy, budgeting and long-term and financial planning. For credit unions it allows them the opportunity to increase membership and further their mission of helping people.
Fort Lee FCU, Prince George, Va., is in the initial state of rolling out the program with Prince George electric co-op. Credit unions in four other states will soon launch it. The program is scheduled to go nationwide in 2016 with a toolkit to assist in implementation.
There’s a lot of opportunity for credit unions to connect with non-financial co-ops, but making the connection can be difficult, said Patricia Brownwell Sterner, NCBA chief operating officer. “We focus in on sectors with the potential to give credit unions the opportunity to expand membership and provide services to the other local cooperative members,” Sterner told News Now.
Added Adam Schwartz, founder of The Cooperative Way consulting firm, who is leading the Operation Connect project on behalf of NCBA: “Credit unions and electric co-ops are the two largest consumer co-op sectors in the country serving 100 million and 42 million members respectively. Through the creation of partnerships at the local level we can provide real tangible benefits for the members and the community. It is really just an expansion of the cooperative principle ‘Cooperation among cooperatives.’
SPIRE CU, Falcon Heights, Minn., traces its history of being active in the cooperative movement back to its earliest days. The credit union was formed in 1934, the height of the depression, to serve employees and members of Midland Cooperatives Oil Association. The credit union’s first branch was in the office of Co-op Services, a Midland subsidiary.
Today, SPIRE CU offers four credit cards that are co-branded with local food cooperatives and a percentage of transactional interchange is donated back to those individual cooperatives. In addition, SPIRE CU President/CEO Dan Stoltz serves on the board of the Cooperative Network, an association that supports cooperatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Bridget Petersen, SPIRE CU market vice president of community outreach told News Now, “In 2008, we changed our name from Twin City Co-ops Credit Union to SPIRE Credit Union. While our name no longer has “co-ops” in our name, our commitment and involvement in cooperatives has never been stronger.”
Brewery CU, Milwaukee, maintains a presence in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, an area rich with cooperatives. The credit union has a branch in Outpost Natural Food Co-op, and also offers an Outpost Natural Food Co-op co-branded credit card, which donates 1% of sales posted each month to the co-op for education.
Brewery CU also maintains ATMs in the Riverwest Co-op, a food cooperative, and the Riverwest Public House, a cooperative pub.
“We view it as doing our part to promote cooperative spirit in Milwaukee,” Brewery CU President/CEO Steven Janssen told News Now.