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United we help

Drop by drop, financial services co-ops are making their communities stronger and richer

Credit Unions are Helping HereCredit unions do beat the big banks at their own game (see “Cheque-mating the banks”).

But let’s get real. That’s not usually their style. The two forms of financial institutions are inherently different – the former work from the bottom up in the name of their membership, while the latter take a top-down approach, seeking sizable profits for shareholders.

Yet when it comes to money donated to worthy, community causes, credit unions across British Columbia and Ontario have found a way to stand beside – even out-perform – those big banks. One of the ways they’ve done that is through a program called Credit Unions are Helping Here.

An initiative launched by Central 1 Credit Union in late 2011, Credit Unions are Helping Here highlights the collective giving power of credit unions – a cooperative of giving cooperatives, if you will. When member organizations log on to a central database and website to track and promote donations in the two provinces, they discover that the figures are staggering. In just a few years, the program has tracked more than 100 participating credit unions, donating over $60 million as well as over 58,000 hours of volunteer time – and those numbers are rising by the day. Remember: that just takes into account the credit unions in B.C. and Ontario that are using the program (although the grand plan is to eventually expand the program nation-wide). In total, from every corner of the country, credit unions contribute an estimated $40 million-plus a year to community causes. Compare that to the $38 million donated by CIBC in 2012 and it’s clear that credit unions are a formidable giving force.

“Credit unions are powerful, especially in the area of community giving,” says Kimberly Jang, marketing strategist at Central 1. “It puts them in league with the big banks. It’s a good feeling to be working in the co-op system.”

Tracking good work

When the site was first conceived, the idea was simple: Provide a platform to highlight and track the work that was already undertaken by many financial services cooperatives across Canada. Credit Unions are Helping Here would provide marketing support to simplify the process for its members, no matter how big or how small. Credit unions without an in-house marketing program could find the materials they needed to promote their community endeavours; and those with a marketing program already in place would find the material easy to integrate, if they wanted to join the program. The initiative would be allowed to grow from the ground up, without being forced on its members.

“The main point of Credit Unions are Helping Here was to try and really show the breadth and depth of what credit unions are capable of and their giving power,” says Jang. “Credit Unions are Helping Here is basically a great kind of marketing program that helps credit unions cooperatively share resources and promote community giving.”

And if you’ve paid attention to the traditional grip-and-grin donation photos in community newspapers across British Columbia and Ontario over the last few years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that more and more, placed among the smiling community leaders and volunteers in those photos, there’s a bright purple sign shaped like a droplet.

The purple droplet came out of brainstorming sessions within Central 1’s marketing team – purple was chosen because it recalls the famous military medal, the Purple Heart, explains Jang. But it’s also a colour not used by many of the credit unions in the network, so it would be sure to stand out while letting them retain their individuality. The teardrop insignia was a no-brainer – it would work as a perfect marker, pinning the many different locations where donations were happening. It was also a standout metaphor. If you look at a map of Canada, the ultimate goal is to have these purple drops shower the entire landscape.

Giving time

Logging onto the Credit Unions are Helping Here website (now in the process of being refreshed and re-launched), one of the first things you notice is that the program doesn’t just track donations using dollar signs. It also tracks volunteer hours.

“It is helpful for different charities and groups to receive monetary amounts, but that being said, a lot of credit unions have volunteers who go out into the community and do work for other organizations and charities,” explains Jang. “That’s just as valuable. So we wanted to . . . capture that impact too, because not everyone is powered by currency. A lot [gets accomplished through] the . . . dedication and the volunteerism of credit union employees.”

One financial services co-op that has tracked volunteer hours using Credit Unions are Helping Here is the $7.1-million Northern Credit Union, with 53,000 members, headquartered in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Two Thunder Bay branches – the Red River Road branch and the Arthur Street branch – donated time to their regional food bank. Although branches commonly conduct food drives around the holiday season, early in the fall Thunder Bay Community Sales Manager Marita Hainrich noticed an ad in the local paper that was placed by the Regional Food Distribution Association.

The organization, in desperate straits, was soliciting donations. “Because there was a local need for the food, the staff sprang into action and made it happen a little earlier,” explains Kristin Sniezek, marketing coordinator for all 25 branches. “Forty hours was about how much time the two branches spent bringing this food drive to life and making it successful.”

She adds that a creative approach to collecting the food also helped raise the profile of the two branches involved.

“Both the Red River Road and Arthur Street branches decided to use canoes to collect the food because they caught the members’ attention and also fit with our ‘True North Strong’ corporate mantra. ‘True North Strong’ celebrates the best parts of life in the North, and giving back and experiencing northern recreation go hand in hand with this philosophy,” she explains.

The canoes of food serve as just one example of the wide variety of initiatives undertaken by the Northern Credit Union network. These efforts go right to the heart of their communities.

“Many different corporate initiatives are carried out at all 25 branches, but the local campaigns championed by our branch staff are also of great significance,” elaborates Sniezek. “Our branches know their communities best and are most intimately connected with their neighbours. Our philosophy is, if we can do something to help out right here at home, that’s what we need to be doing. Our communities count on us to be a leader and lend a hand when it is needed the most.”

Credit Unions are Helping Here has further supported that philosophy, she says. “It’s a great way to keep track of the donations we have been making in dollars, but . . . our staff gives countless hours to local causes. By using Credit Unions are Helping Here, we are able to track those hours and recognize the impact that our people have been making. It is also great to see what the other credit unions are up to. It gives us inspiration for future initiatives in our communities.”

Clicking around on the website unveils donations of varying sizes and amounts. Even a small donation can produce a huge impact. Take, for example, Northern Credit Union’s “random acts of kindness” campaign. Each year, it gives all its branches $50 and cards with the cooperative’s logo on them. The purpose: “To do good deeds around town leading up to International Credit Union Day,” explains Sniezek.

“Our staff has been so unbelievably creative with this in the past – delivering a pizza to local teachers, putting change in expired parking meters, paying for coffee for the person behind you in line at the drive through, bringing fresh apples to a doctor’s office, or flowers to a local nursing home. The ideas that came forward were amazing and inspiring,” she says.

“These types of contributions don’t always stand out on the Credit Unions are Helping Here website because they are on the small side, but the reactions we get in our communities has been tremendous.”

Giving money

In British Columbia, Kootenay Savings Credit Union, which represents 13 branches and over 40,000 members across the East and West Kootenay region of B.C., was an early adopter of Credit Unions are Helping Here.

“As a local, member-owned financial cooperative, our success is based on having healthy, vibrant and sustainable communities, so it is very important for Kootenay Savings to have strong roots in and to give back to those communities,” says Aron Burke, Kootenay Savings’ community liaison from Trail, B.C. The launch of the site didn’t change how much the group was already donating (“We’ve always been huge community supporters,” says Burke), but it has helped them become more diligent in promoting those contributions.

“We’ve used the site consistently since it was introduced and it has been very helpful in helping us externally publicize who we donate to,” he says. “It’s also a great tracking tool, as every donation we make, both monetary and in-kind, are tracked in one place.”

“It is also great to see what other credit unions are up to. It gives us inspiration for future initiatives in our communities”

—Kristin Sniezek, Northern Credit Union

As well, the site allows them to see what other credit unions and cooperatives are up to. That’s one of the factors Kootenay Savings’ looks at when deciding what groups and projects it is going to support and at what level. Burke says the credit union chain also assesses community benefit, economic benefit, future improved community benefits, and whether there is a demonstrated need for the project or initiative.

Employees get in on the giving

While most donations and sponsorships are handled through the corporate office, employees also play a direct role in the giving process. One means is through the Care Wear program, which gives employees and directors the freedom to dress casually every Friday – and it only costs a buck. Each dollar is matched by the Kootenay Savings Community Foundation and on Credit Union Day every branch and office location donates their funds to a deserving cause.

“Generally the Care Wear donations are made to local groups and causes that are near and dear to the hearts of the employees at each respective branch and department, and it is completely up to them to decide who to donate to,” says Burke, noting that last year saw nearly $25,000 distributed to 23 local community groups. That’s just one example. The branches and departments also undertake many different fundraising initiatives throughout the year (raffles, BBQs, bake sales, prize draws) to raise money for local charities. And all of it, large and small, is entered into the Credit Unions are Helping Here database. Burke likes the fact that “each contribution entered on the site can include information about the community group and their project, as well as photos, videos and useful links.”

Click on Kootenay Savings’ page on the site, and you’ll see the credit union has donated an impressive $1,176,769 (and counting) since the start of the program in late 2011. Burke says that among the contributions that stood out to him last year was the cooperative’s support of two regional health foundations.

“Last year was the sixth year that we’ve been in partnership with the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital Health Foundation and the East Kootenay Foundation for Health. We provide $15,000 annually to each as the signature sponsor of one of their major fundraising events,” he says. A map, multimedia and links tell the stories of these donations, and the many others that make up the site. You can easily lose track of time discovering various giving moments and the initiatives financial services cooperatives across the country care about.

Community stories

And we can look forward to more in-depth stories about cooperative giving in the near future. Jang, from Central 1, says that the website, to be re-launched this year, is going to be even more focussed on drawing out community stories.

“As it stands right now, the website was originally conceived as a tool for credit unions to be able to not only track their contributions, but to also signal to the rest of the system and their members the extent of their impact and contributions,” she says, noting that 2013 was all about development while the 2014 re-launch is about providing more resources. “So what we’re doing with this refresh of the website is to also really try to communicate stories that come out of that. I think there’ll be a big storytelling piece to this new website. We’re looking forward to doing that and to upping the human factor in this new phase of the program.” ◊