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Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union isn’t shy about promoting itself as a financial cooperative. It hosts a microsite—www.7principles.coop—that's part of a rebranding campaign launched four years ago to highlight the credit union’s co-op identity.
Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union isn’t shy about promoting itself as a financial cooperative. It hosts a microsite (www.7principles.coop) that’s part of a rebranding campaign launched four years ago to highlight the credit union’s co-op identity.
“During the past four years, we’ve been demonstrating one or more of the seven cooperative principles in different ways—some in internal operations, some in member education, and some in public events like Co-opalooza,” says Jill Vicente, senior vice president and chief marketing and sales officer for the $560 million asset credit union.
The credit union presented its second annual Co-opalooza in October 2011, and the event brought together a wide array of cooperatives. “We had art co-ops, energy co-ops, flower-growing co-ops, and many others,” Vicente explains. “It opened people’s eyes to how prevalent cooperatives are.”
Exhibitors included not only local co-ops, but also some from around the region and other parts of the country. Live music and kids’ activities sponsored by the Children’s Museum gave the learning event a festive spirit.
Vicente emphasizes that Co-opalooza is only one part of Seattle Metropolitan’s broader strategy to reach out to other cooperatives and display its own co-op brand. “If Co-opalooza were the only thing we did all year,” she says, “that wouldn’t be a sincere, realistic representation of us as a cooperative. This isn’t something you can do as a one-off. It’s not just a marketing project. It takes commitment from your entire organization.”
A similar event occurred in Madison, Wis., in October 2011. Called Co-op Connection, the celebration’s sponsor was $1.6 billion asset Summit Credit Union, Madison.
Summit has made concerted efforts to reach out to other cooperatives during the past few years. Early in 2011, it began to explore ways to spark more interaction among cooperatives of all types.
“In April, we held a luncheon for all the area cooperatives we could contact,” says Carrie O’Connor, senior vice president of business services and development. “We brainstormed about how to work together.”
All co-op representatives said they faced the challenge of explaining co-ops to the community-at-large, as well as members and board members. Co-marketing and co-branding could reap benefits for all cooperatives, they agreed.
Summit’s Co-op Connection was a first step in bringing a variety of co-ops together for a public event. Since then, co-op collaboration has continued. One idea is to have a Co-op Day at the semiprofessional Madison Mallards baseball game next summer. And several cooperatives are working with the city of Madison to present a conference in early 2012. “It will focus on how cooperatives can contribute to economic development and job creation,” O’Connor says.
Helping communities thrive
Summit reaches out to its fellow co-ops in additional ways. For instance, it loaned funds to a technical assistance co-op startup that helps small farmers better market and sell their products. And it made loans to housing co-ops and to a grocery co-op opening a second store.
“In the past couple of years, we’ve increased our focus on offering business services to cooperatives,” O’Connor says. Summit has 96 cooperatives, including credit unions, on its membership roster.
Also in Wisconsin, credit unions played a role in helping to launch the Farmers’ Health Cooperative, which provides health insurance to farmers and agribusinesses. The insurance co-op offers two high-deductible plans linked to health savings accounts (HSA).
Eight credit unions around the state hosted town hall meetings to explain the new plans to farmers. “When you’re self-employed, you don’t have a human resources department to help you,” says Cathy Mahaffey, executive director of Farmers’ Health Cooperative. She and the co-op’s board acted in that capacity for farmers, relying on credit unions for help. The latter explained HSAs and their benefits at town hall meetings.
At $980 million asset Knoxville (Tenn.) TVA Employees Credit Union, an in-house recycling program expanded to offering communitywide shredding events. Leading those efforts was Vicki Swartz, the credit union’s manager of record retention, printing, and supplies. Then Swartz took another step in her green efforts: working with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—a supplier of electricity to small electric co-ops—to offer loans.
The TVA offers financing to consumers for energy-efficiency projects through its energy right® loan program. The credit union fills in the gaps by making smaller loans to electric co-op members in its field of membership to purchase Energy Star products. Offering energy-saving home improvement loans might be added in the future.
“TVA was excited to have a financial organization other than a bank that was interested in providing financing solutions for consumers,” Swartz says. She traces her enthusiasm for working with other co-ops to her experiences in the Master of Management in Cooperatives and Credit Unions program at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To date, she’s one of only two Americans working in credit unions to complete the program.
And in Vermont, Cabot Creamery, a dairy co-op headquartered in Montpelier, teamed up with the New York Credit Union Foundation to teach children about the importance of healthy bodies and strong money habits. The Growing Health and Wealth activity kits—available for free downloading—are designed for parents and grandparents to use with 6-to-10 year olds.
“With our health-care crisis and our economic crisis, it’s time to help families understand how important health is for growing wealth,” says Marie Frohlich, community and education program manager at Cabot Creamery.
Next: The case for cooperation