The Downtown Eastside district of Vancouver, British Columbia, is known for high poverty rates and other social ills. Its residents have multiple barriers to traditional employment. But Sole Food (Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical) Street Farms is helping to change that by collaborating with a local credit union.
Vancity Credit Union has been involved from the beginning, providing grants and loans that have enabled Sole Food to get established and expand.
The organization grows and sells organic produce, and local residents are the “farmers” who tend the crops.
“They help improve food security in the community and provide meaningful employment that helps people feel valued,” explains William Azaroff , Vancity’s director of business and community development. “Some go on to find other work in local gardening or food businesses.”
Most recently, Vancity provided Sole Food with a loan and a $75,000 grant, with a goal of making the organization self-sustaining. The investment will allow the project to expand from one site to five, transforming disused urban spaces into gardens. Its workforce has grown from six people to more than 25.
This is just one example of Vancity’s many partnerships with other cooperatives, which include investments in organizations that:
“It’s the right thing for our members and our community, and the right thing for our business,” Azaroff says. “We believe in helping to build communities that can thrive socially, economically, and environmentally and this is one example of how we can do that. We collaborate with co-ops that need our investment and services—not our charity.”
“We are Canada’s largest financial cooperative and can meet community and individual needs that are not always met by markets and/or the government. Cooperatives are organizations that have a mission to better society. Working with other co-ops—becoming their financial institution of choice—is an increasing part of our business.”
He’s excited about the impact on Vancity, too. Its emphasis on improving quality of life in communities makes the credit union an employer of choice.
“We want to attract young employees and board members,” he says, “and we are finding that people graduate from college and really want to work with us because of our cooperative and values-based banking model.”
Cooperatives are rooted in communities, notes Chris Fraenza, impact manager at the Filene Research Institute. “They can help each other and meet the needs of their communities,” he says. “Look at Vancity’s focus on giving loans to co-ops.”
Vancity gave a loan to start a car-sharing service called Modo, which parks a hybrid vehicle at a Vancity branch for members to use. The two organizations are always looking for ways to partner for mutual benefit. Modo knows the car business, and Vancity has the financial resources. “They can leverage each other’s strengths,” Fraenza says.
More credit unions are starting to integrate financial services into other business operations, says Mike Beall, president/CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA).
“There’s a lot of cross-promotion in Austin, Texas, for instance, with credit unions promoting membership in food and student housing co-ops,” Beall says. “Members of those co-ops are moving their financial accounts into the credit unions.”
It’s a natural fit, says Holly Fearing, digital media strategist at CUNA Mutual Group. “Credit union members are likely to be members of other co-ops. They’re a very connected, loyal audience, and that increases stickiness and deepens member relationships,” says Fearing, who’s a member of two credit unions, a food co-op, and a sporting goods co-op.
“If all four communicate a message, I’m four times more likely to pay attention,” she says. “And if I’m a member of three of the four, I’ll at least take a look at the fourth if I’m satisfied with the other three relationships.”
Many instances of collaboration probably go under the radar, Beall observes, because it’s so common. “Almost every credit union is involved with some form of collaboration. It starts with the CUSOs [credit union service organizations] they work with, and the shared branching network is a co-op.”
But collaboration isn’t universal—and credit unions can do more. The biggest challenge for non financial coops is access to funds and financial services, says Beall. Credit unions don’t always know their co-op brethren, and may not realize they have opportunities to work together. “That’s something NCBA CLUSA is working on, convening groups of co-ops and talking about how they can work together,” he says.
Credit unions and cooperatives have a lot to gain by working together. “One thing we strongly believe,” Beall says, “is that by promoting each other and talking to each other, co-ops can grow their memberships and create business opportunities. If a housing co-op promotes credit union membership to its own base, the members already have an understanding of what a co-op is, and it’s easier to get them to join another one.”
Everybody wins when consumer awareness of the cooperative structure grows, he says. “Each sector struggles to define how it’s different from for-profit competitors,” Beall says. “Promoting each other raises awareness of all co-ops.”
NEXT: Growing awareness