When you think about Vancity Credit Union sharing 30% of its net profits with members and communities in promoting a more just, sustaining and sustainable Vancouver/Vancouver Island/BC/world you have to wonder how they can share over $287 million with members and communities and still provide products and services that are, at least, competitive with other financial institutions.
The idea which infuses Vancity’s co-operative business model and drives its role as agent for positive social change is Social Capital.
While the idea of social capital got off to a rocky start with many criticizing it as some sort of ivory tower mind game, it has, over the past decade, gained wide spread recognition as an essential criteria in public health, social well being, corporate success, the essential glue that holds healthy communities together and the bedrock of democratic nations and institutions.
Social capital is a form of economic and cultural capital in which social connections are central and relations/interactions among people and organizations are marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation. Evaluating Social Capital includes assessing the value of the common good in produced goods and services. For the sake of simplicity, we can think of social capital as the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust and work together.
Social capital is not just about neighbourhoods and obviously close communities, recent research has shown that social capital influences the use, performance, and success of strategic alliances in all manner of business transactions. Social capital provides the glue which facilitates co-operation, exchange and innovation. Hard evidence suggests social capital boosts business performance. Businesses with rich social capital have been shown to enjoy better access to venture capital and financing, improved organizational learning, greater ability to create strategic alliances, and more effective resources in defending against hostile takeovers.
In the nineteen eighties when interest rates were skyrocketing, Vancity was caught in a bind with a poor match between the rate that it had given loans at and the interest rate it would have to pay to savings accounts to fund its loans. What got Vancity past what could have been a difficult time was social capital—Vancity’s members stayed with the credit union even when they could have closed savings accounts and make a little better interest at a bank, but members obviously held their accounts with Vancity because they believed that the credit union was an essential and highly valued part of their community. Concerted planning and effort on the part of Vancity soon brought savings and loans into a better match. But it was social capital—in this case customer loyalty—that greased the transition.
When Vancity formed in 1946, the credit union didn’t specifically set out to be in the business of building social capital. Their active role in fostering programs promoting healthy people in healthy communities on a healthy planet came about naturally as a result of their co-operative business model.
As part of their commitment to their employees they have become the largest private-sector organization in Canada to support the Living Wage—a higher standard that reflects the real cost of living in the Metro Vancouver area. Vancity reaches beyond its institutional walls by including living wage agreements with its major suppliers.
As part of its commitment to a healthy environment Vancity has become the first North America-based financial institution to achieve carbon neutrality. It was awarded the first-ever Green Company Award. It funded Dockside Green residential development –the first greenhouse gas positive community in North America. Vancity was awarded the first-ever Green Company Award for Environmental Leadership.
Vancity has funded 10,500 financial literacy seminars as well as 786 units of affordable housing. Taylor Manor received a $1.2M donation from Vancity for supportive housing to help individuals struggling with mental illness and addiction break the cycle of homelessness and establish stability in their lives.
At a time when other credit unions were goo-goo-eyed over big banks and their singular focus on profit at all costs—including running interference for corporate crooked schemes like the Enron fiasco, Vancity wrote the principles behind and established Ethical Investing as a way to earn a return on money invested while also employing it to build a better world.
When Coastal Communities Credit Union abandoned its services to northern islanders, Vancity went to work with the ‘Namgis First Nation and the Village of Alert Bay to open a branch on Cormorant Island becoming the first credit union in Canada to participate in the First Nations Market Housing Fund, which gives First Nations members greater access to housing loans on reserve and on settlement lands where appropriate.
As a values-based financial co-operative, Vancity continues to be THE LEADER in transforming how banking is done so members and their communities can thrive financially, socially and environmentally. It is an outstanding example of what social capital can mean to people, their societies and the Earth.
I see that Coast Capital Credit Union, the BC credit union most like a bank, is putting in a branch on the Home Depot lot in Courtenay. How I wish it were Vancity so we too could contribute to building a just, sustaining and sustainable Comox Valley/world by how we carry out our financial transactions. How I wish our Coastal Community Credit Union would look at a merger with Vancity rather than pursuing growth for big sake with meger plans that have no benefit for our communities. I would be most delighted to join with any others who are interested in lobbying CCCU to consider incorporating Vancity and its values into the financial possibilities for all of us on mid-north Vancouver Islanders.