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Community cues

Credit unions reweave the ties that bind communities

Community CuesIf you build it, they will come. Or not.

In today’s digital world and global economy, local community spirit can seem more fractured than fostered.

Are we separated by values, income, work, neighbourhood, education, family makeup, extracurricular interests . . . or strengthened? What creates community?

This philosophical puzzle is at the core of what credit unions face as they continue to reflect and even reweave the community ties that bind.

A major 2012 survey by the Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation with more than $814 million under management, shows that people feel increasingly “separated by ethnicity, culture, language, income, age and even geography” and laments a “deepening civic malaise that has resulted in more people retreating from community activities.”

The survey was commissioned following feedback from stakeholders. “Last year, through community consultations, we heard that people in metro Vancouver are becoming increasingly disconnected and disengaged from community life. We did this survey to help us better understand this issue from the point of view of our residents,” says Faye Wightman, Vancouver Foundation President and CEO. Heady stuff, and when people feel that isolated and disconnected, it’s hard to address complex community-based issues like poverty and homelessness.

“Last year, through community consultations, we heard that people in metro Vancouver are becoming increasingly disconnected and disengaged from community life”
—Faye Wightman

Post-survey, the Vancouver Foundation asked what can be done to help build a more connected and engaged community. Credit unions across Canada are doing the same. While isolation and disconnectedness may be especially relevant in metro Vancouver, it also impacts evolving communities coast-to-coast, from the industrial urbanscape of Hamilton, Ont., to the rural outpost of Kamsack in eastern Saskatchewan. What these communities have in common is that credit unions are working within them to reweave any fraying fabric.

West Coast vibe

Vancouver City Savings Credit Union has been on a mission to reconnect with its West Coast community through a triple-bottom-line approach of people-planet-profit and the Good Money™ brand it launched in 2011. “We redeveloped our brand a while back to really honour our past and put us squarely in the future in a more overt way around Vancity’s value proposition of building stronger communities,” says COO Rick Sielski. That brand has attracted more than 12,000 new members. It just fits — a seamless segue between the credit union and the local vibe and community. And part of that is making the branch itself a community asset, says Sielski.

The much-lauded Vancity branch redesign as a vibrant community hub was unveiled late last year. Think friendly, receptive, design savvy, eco chic — a place where members are encouraged to hang out. “one of the best compliments we get is, ‘wow, this doesn’t look like a bank,’” says Sielski. The scene at Vancity’s new Port Coquitlam and South Burnaby branches is that of a local coffee house with wi-fi zone, funky lighting (made of recycled financial statements to follow through with Vancouver’s and Vancity’s eco ethos), art installations and even a business incubator space, dubbed the “think tank”  — apropos for the burgeoning start-up scene in metro Vancouver.

The branches also include the “Community Stage,” a free meeting room for community events and gatherings and the “Gift,” a space for local merchants to display and share their wares (like goodies from a budding chocolatier), and is already so a popular that Sielski says it’s been booked out months in advance.

These branches are living labs on how to engage and strengthen community through bricks-and-mortar space. Vancity has plans to roll out three more redesigned branches by the end of this year, following the look, for feel and functionality of the two pilot branches, which will remain in perpetual beta as testing grounds for new retail ideas. It’s about showing members that they can get everything they need from a financial institution at Vancity and be part of something much greater.

Across the country in south-central Ontario, the local scene amid the automotive and steel industries has surprising parallels. FirstOntario Credit Union’s COO Dave Schurman says a noticeable change took hold with the occupy movement and, more recently, with Royal Bank of Canada’s outsourcing scandal. The credit union’s call centre was deluged with people hungry for more transparency in terms of their financial institutions and increased community involvement — an echo of how credit unions originated. “People formed credit unions to take their financial well-being into their own hands,” says Schurman. “And, today, communities are doing what individuals did back then . . . we need to take our communities back.”

 “People formed credit unions to take their financial well-being into their own hands. And today, communities are doing what individuals did back then . . . we need to take our communities back”
—Dave Schurman

With branches in communities of varying size west of Toronto, FirstOntario might be in a mega mall or the only game in town, says Schurman, and as such has responded by making sure it’s available where, when and how members need it. That includes implementing the Community Assistance Program (CAP), to provide financial breaks (like reducing mortgage rates and fees rather than foreclosing) to members in hard-up communities with manufacturing-plant closures and lay-offs. FirstOntario has even rethought the traditional branch footprint and opened a mini, 250-square-foot branch in a new St. Catherines hospital. This boutique-style branch, which includes the PAT machines FirstOntario pioneered in Canada, is meant for, not only patients and visitors, but all the hospital employees who work shifts and unconventional hours.

At the other end of the spectrum, FirstOntario also has an Apple-store-like design-savvy space in the works in a major mall. It’s about meeting the particular needs of microcosms within the larger community. Late last year, FirstOntario opened a branch with zero members in a long-vacant building in downtown Hamilton to make a statement, says Schurman. “We wanted to be part of that revitalization, and part of the solution rather than the problem.” The branch is a small business hub where a collective of young Hamilton entrepreneurs can gather and find support (the group is also sponsored by FirstOntario).

Insight through immigration

As similar scenes of urban revitalization take place in Alberta’s cities, its rural outposts are also being redefined. To engage its urban/rural mix, Servus Credit Union has established 34 community councils to be the “eyes and ears of the local community,” says Taras Nohas, VP strategy and governance. “If you look at an urban/rural blend, you’ll see there are different changes happening depending where you are in Alberta,” says Nohas. “It’s difficult to paint an over-arching picture of change throughout, and that’s where our community councils come into play and help us with gauging what is happening in the communities.”

“If you look at an urban/rural blend, you’ll see there are different changes happening depending where you are in Alberta”
—Taras Nohas

From the southwest corner of the province in Crowsnest Pass to Fort McMurray in the oil sands of the north, Servus has 100 branches in 62 far-flung communities — many of them with strong ethnic and linguistic ties. The community council concept began in 1987 as a means to engage credit unions with eastern European ties after a big merger in multicultural Edmonton, but it may be even more relevant today. Of the 32 active councils, 10 are ethnic or linguistic. Their feedback has prompted Servus to streamline the process of making fund transfers to foreign countries, so new immigrants can more easily send money to family outside of Canada.

More and more, community now extends far beyond Servus’ traditional playing field, so the question becomes “how can we improve our members’ connection to their families back home, wherever home is?” says Nohas. And in light of such far-reaching ties, Servus also supports one of the largest heritage festivals in North America (with more than 400,000 participants). the feedback from a council can affect much smaller change too — like building a skateboard park in Lacombe. “We basically listen to the councils and, where we can, we participate,” says Nohas. Whether it involves dozens of youth or hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the result is community interaction.

Prairie principle

Affinity Credit Union in Saskatchewan also faces an urban/rural mix. While Affinity is based in Saskatoon, and engaged in urban renewal with outreach programs and financial literacy programs, most of its branches are in small towns. Again, Affinity is one of the few businesses (let alone financial institutions) in town. Rather than vying for communal space amid the bustle of a densely populated city like Vancity does, Affinity may be the only place for people to connect in remote communities.

And, much like Servus in Alberta, Affinity uses district councils (eight geographical districts covering 49 branches) for feedback and perspective on the range of experience among its members, including a first Nations district and an on-reserve branch. District council delegates play powerful roles in the governance of the credit union. One such delegate brought forth the dire need for senior housing so that older members could remain in the community, “critical to ensuring the community remains viable and that services and businesses are maintained,” says Irene Gannitsos, manager of community development. Affinity has since partnered with the community members in the tiny town of Kamsack to develop a housing initiative that will provide 18 senior homes.

On the urban front, accessible financing through community loans spurs the development of community-minded projects and facilities like the Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre in downtown Saskatoon (to which Affinity also contributed $500,000). It’s another form of community hub, this time with a non-profit cooperative grocery store, health and nutrition programs, employment services, meeting space, café and a social enterprise catering company.

Back to basics

The cross-country examples of how credit unions are listening to community cues are heartening. Yes, community may appear fractured, people sometimes feel alone and disconnected and societal problems have a way of seeming exclusive and isolated. but credit unions continue to reflect the very communities that created them, and are now in many ways helping reweave those ties that bind.

In Miramichi, New Brunswick, smaller player Beaubear Credit Union has been a part of the community since 1938. It recently opened up a new, modern branch in the town, touted by the local MLA Robert Trevors as the return of the “action corner” that’ll bring “our young people back.” Small or large, rural or urban, immigrant or established, young or old, credit unions are evolving with their particular communities. As Beaubear’s CEO, Andy Richardson, says; “having a locally owned financial institution that directly understands the dynamics of our local community and economy, where decisions are made locally, is a huge asset in today’s global economy.”

“[H]aving a locally owned financial institution that directly understands the dynamics of our local community and economy, where decisions are made locally, is a huge asset in today’s global economy”
—Andy Richardson

That can mean bringing back the branch to a key street corner, or developing the new ding free® Sea to Sea app that creates a mobile network of fee-free transactions for credit union members nationwide — a crucial step taken by Canadian credit unions in this digital, mobile age. Or it can be the seemingly simple idea of the “Gift” in Vancity’s newest branches — a bricks-and-mortar spot where members are free to share their wares and show how they’re making a difference and, in turn, other members can sample and discover something new and local. That’s community. If you build that, the space for interaction, they will come. ◊