A visit to Italy by a group of leaders from the U.S. cooperative business sector included a day learning from some of Europe’s top cooperative leaders.

Cooperation trumps individualism

International visits showcase the power of organizations working together.

February 13, 2023

Seldom have I encountered a leader who has enjoyed any measure of professional success who doesn’t point to and credit the influence of others in that success. 

For me, the roster of such colleagues is long. It includes many heroes of the credit union movement, including two whose influence expanded my understanding of, commitment to, and passion for how cooperatives can not only meaningfully improve members’ quality of life but also the communities they call home. 

Retired league CEOs Dick Ensweiler and Mike Mercer included me in visits to Desjardins in Montreal and Mondragon in Spain’s Basque Country with other U.S. credit union executives. 

This opened my eyes to the power of well-executed collaboration among cooperatives in transforming communities. Future travel showed me the depth and breadth of international cooperatives. 

A visit by executives from Sicredi, Brazil’s largest credit union system, to my Austin, Texas, credit union, along with travel to Bologna, Italy, and Vancity in Vancouver, British Columbia, further enhanced this former chief financial officer’s understanding of how cooperatives’ human, impact-driven visions can transform the world.

The recent Bologna trip was the direct result of the Principle 6 (P6) Initiative launched by National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International CEO Doug O’Brien in 2021. It included a small group of leaders from the U.S. cooperative business sector, including Martin Lowery, the U.S. representative on the board of the International Cooperative Alliance. 

We enjoyed a variety of learning experiences, including an entire day at the University of Bologna with professors Stefano Zamagni and Vera Zamagni, who are regarded as experts by cooperative leaders in Europe. 

Bologna is located in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, which is among the world’s most robust cooperative economies.

In addition to the existence of substantial numbers of cooperatives in virtually all sectors of its economy, Italy provides a supportive legal landscape with a culture of self-help that dates back many centuries. 

Notable unique features include a government supportive of cooperatives and their mission to lift people, near universal attention to society’s greater needs, and a support system for cooperative development and sustainability anchored by three funds that are fueled by mandatory contributions of cooperative profits. 

The cooperative system also applies considerable resources to education. The exercise of P6 is natural behavior, and cooperatives have significant impact in that region of Italy. Strident U.S.-style individualism was less obvious. 

I was reminded of a briefing at the end of our visit to Desjardins in Montreal. Someone asked a Desjardins executive if he thought U.S. credit union leaders could implement at home what we’d observed during our visit. His response: “Probably not. In the U.S., you are too independent-minded to collaborate well. You tend to believe you can do things better than others, so are not inclined to explore cooperation.”

It disappoints me to admit it, but more often than not he may be right.

TONY BUDET is CUNA Board Chair and CEO at UFCU, Austin, Texas.