Cooperating with Cooperatives: A Winning Strategy

By Robert McGarvey for Credit Union 2.0

Just maybe the fast track to greater credit union success is staring just about every credit union in the face and that’s the cooperative next door. 

Mark your calendar. October is National Cooperative Month and, by some counts, there are around 40,000 cooperatives nationally that are joining in the celebration. 

What are you doing? 

Core advice is get busy putting together cooperative events with other co-ops to celebrate your community, also your cooperative essence. 

Do your members know you are a cooperative?  This month is the time to remind them, and to help them recognize that in lots of ways America’s economic success has roots in the cooperative movement. Lot of ideas are at the National Cooperative Business Association. Here are plenty of suggestions for cp-op month activities.   

But what I want you to mull is a stretch goal: How about making every month a Cooperative Month in which you look for ways to celebrate the cooperative difference and how cooperatives benefit their communities. 

It’s about ownership by members, not shareholders, and the foundation of every cooperative is putting people before profits. That’s a message that resonates especially loudly today and it’s a message that seems ideally suited to Millennials. Millennials, the pollsters tell us, want to do business with people they trust and 40% say they want to buy locally. 

How does that not say now is an ideal time to be a credit union? How does it not say that when Millennials get what credit unions are about – local, member ownership, people before profits – they will want to become members? 

And other cooperatives will help you get that message out loudly and persuasively.  In many cases you just have to ask for help. 

Know this: Cooperatives are a key part of the American economic fabric – and by accentuating the cooperative backbone of every credit union, a savvy credit union can leverage that DNA to build better relationships that stimulate growth. 

Who to partner up with? Look at the National Cooperative Bank’s annual list of the top 100 cooperatives.  You’ll know a few names.  Navy Federal, which places 9th on the list.  State Employees Credit Union in North Carolina ranks 37th. Pentagon Federal is 65.  BECU is 88.   

That means most of the nation’s biggest cooperatives are not in fact credit unions.  What many are is agriculture cooperatives (Sunkist, Cabot Cheese, Land o’Lakes and Blue Diamond are among the better known).  Many are in retail – think Ace and True Value.  There are numerous electric coops, which remain essential in electrifying huge swaths of rural America.   

What’s important – and exciting – about these cooperatives is that they are succeeding and they are rooted in cooperative principles.   

And many just might want to join with you in celebrating what makes cooperatives special. 

Paul Stuff, CEO of the Credit Union Association of New Mexico, told me: “Credit unions have access to the power of the cooperative.  They can share ideas, technology, employees.  They can enjoy great value through cooperation.” 


Another suggestion: look for cooperative partners where you already shop and spend money.  If you are a customer of REI, ask the store manager.  If you buy your nuts and bolts at ACE, ask the local owner. 

The big agricultural cooperatives are well known for a willingness to provide product samples at some meetings.  Ask and you may receive a bounty. 

The real point: it is too easy for a consumer to see a credit union as a kind of one-off, eccentric bank – but hit home the message that a credit union, as a cooperative, is part of a large movement that aims to put more power in the hands of consumers and also in many cases workers, many in the public will applaud the idea. 

What had seemed small and eccentric instead is seen as something that is part of a big movement that empowers those who get involved. 

Want another starting point? Put on a quick workshop for employees that reminds them that the credit union is in fact a cooperative and that puts it in a tradition that traces back to the Rochdale farmers and their struggle for a better life in the 1840s.   

And urge employees that where appropriate – in new member onboarding for instance – that they get across the message that a credit union, definitionally, is part of something big and glorious. 

 And just keep building one cooperator at a time.

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