The Power of Cooperation

A number of years ago, I read a book called The World is Flat, an international bestselling book by Thomas Friedman that analyzed the impact of globalization and what it was going to mean for individuals, businesses, and countries.

Although I’m not sure I totally understood it at the time, it has become clearer that our world is one where borders and physical location are becoming less and less important.

Globalization also means that if businesses and organizations are going to remain meaningful and competitive, ongoing shifts in thinking will be essential.

By way of example, when my husband and I moved from Niagara to Edmonton several years ago, we made a decision to continue banking with a local credit union.

In large part it was because, over a period of some 20 years, we had become big fans of their services. But, perhaps more importantly, we had strong relationships — their staff knew us. They not only knew us, but over the years had helped us make decisions that impacted our family and the communities served by our businesses.

It used to be that a change in one’s location automatically meant changing financial institutions, or, at the very least, a new branch and new accounts. However, that is no longer the case.

The same technology that has made the world flatter, has also made it possible for my husband and I to bank online and continue as members of this same credit union.

All of this was brought to mind this week when I learned more about the importance of credit unions as well as that 2012 is the United Nation’s International Year of Cooperatives.

Canadians are served by 378 credit unions in 1,745 locations and 476 Caisses Populaires owned by their members.

Whereas a bank is a business run for profit, by people who answer to their investors and are expected to keep their investors happy by making money, credit unions are different.

When you deposit your money with a credit union, you’re actually buying shares of the company. Rather than being a customer, you’re part owner.

So while they still operate as a business, credit unions, and cooperatives in general, are more focused on serving their members and their communities.

So why is this important and why should you care?

While too often overlooked, credit unions and cooperatives are trusted, locally controlled, and capable of addressing tremendous need.

Cooperatives are democratic businesses and organizations, equally owned and controlled by a group of people. The nearly 8,500 cooperatives across Canada include housing co-ops, retail co-ops, childcare, agricultural and health care coops and more.

In a cooperative, one member has one vote ensuring democratic member control. Because cooperatives are democratically owned by community members, they keep money and jobs in their communities while also offering achievable and practical solutions to many economic, environmental, and social problems that can be implemented right now.

Cooperatives are more resilient in economic downturns, typically because members work together to find solutions, thereby sharing both burden and benefits in hard and good times.

It might just be that we need to think more about co-operatives as having potential for a changing world that seems to be demanding more transparency while placing less emphasis on making profits for shareholders.

Ultimately this means that if we’re not happy with corporations that exploit people and the planet, and are looking for viable and just alternatives and infrastructures for a people-centred economy, cooperatives might just be the answer.

Posted on 05-27-12

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