The Power of Co-operative Education

ontario.coop
6 min readApr 26, 2022
Michelle at her very first All4Each presentation at Bayshore Credit Union in Belleville, ON

Submitted by Michelle Christmann, Education Manager, Ontario Co-operative Association

Like so many others, I didn’t set out to have a career in the co-operative sector; it was purely luck that I happened upon an advertisement for a position at a local credit union. The words “credit union” didn’t mean much to me, but when I did some research before my interview, and read how this was a bank that was owned and operated by people in my community… I was intrigued.

Our small regional credit union didn’t really talk about being a co-operative, and I don’t really remember even being aware of that word during the first year of my employment. I did know that I loved working there, and the commitment to customer service was like nothing I had seen at any of the places I had worked before. The relationships that we built and the care for our members was a point of pride; we swapped member success stories and we wore our good deeds like badges of honour.

What stood out to me most in that first couple of years was this: every time someone asked me where I worked, I struggled to explain. I was met with a lot of blank stares, questions about what a credit union was (which I didn’t feel comfortable explaining), and often, we just changed the subject. Looking back, I feel like I missed a lot of opportunities to educate the public, because I didn’t have the right words to share just how amazing this “community bank” really was, and why! I knew I loved working there, and I knew our members loved banking there, but it was a challenge for me and other staff to communicate this passion without having a greater understanding about the business we were working for.

In sum, I knew we were doing something good, but I didn’t understand the depth of it. I knew we were doing things differently, but I struggled to communicate it. I knew that the value we offered was unique, but I didn’t know how to frame it in a way that people could understand and find plausible.

It wasn’t until our CEO came across an advertisement for the All 4 Each program being offered by the Ontario Co-operative Association, that the world of co-operatives opened up to me. It was through this program that I met Kerr Smith. Kerr is a brilliant and passionate Co-operative Educator, and I am lucky enough to call him both friend and collaborator all these years later. All 4 Each was an amazing program that offered tools and resources to credit union staff, to enable them to bring co-operative learning to local high school students. Meeting Kerr and becoming involved with All 4 Each not only helped give me the words I needed to explain the structure and benefits of my credit union to its members and to the community, but it also helped broaden my sense of purpose. To find out I was part of this much bigger sector, one that operated with values and principles, one that empowered and engaged whole communities was truly eye-opening.

As my co-operative knowledge grew, I started sharing it with my co-workers. Some of that was organic, as I found myself chatting with my peers about cool co-ops I had come across, and inspiring co-op stories. As an organization, we set out to share information more formally, through presentations to staff and board members and at our AGM’s. Slowly but surely, our team was finding the words to share all the very best things about us, and with that knowledge came a deeper appreciation of the dynamics of our relationship with our members, and a renewed sense of pride.

We were very successful with the All 4 each program; we delivered hundreds of presentations to local high school students, and even started a program where we mentored student-run co-operatives in local high schools. In 2017 our credit union merged with another local credit union and we now found ourselves with the resources to devote a full-time position to community building and co-operative education.

The first year, we had all the staff participate in a Co-ops 101/Brand Ambassador Workshop. I won’t say it was easy to get everyone on board with this, and I admit the logistics were challenging, but it proved to be a game-changer for this team of employees, many of whom were a bit uncertain about their new identity or about the direction this merger was going to take. I attended all the sessions, and what struck me most was that every person that dragged their heels going in and grumbled that they didn’t have time for this, walked out of that session like a team that had just won the playoffs! They were energized, excited and chatting away about this new knowledge. They talked about learning how they were part of this incredible global co-operative movement, part of this family of innovators and value-based organizations. They talked about purpose, their pride in the way we served our members, and they were bursting with ideas! From this co-operative learning session, we formed a committee of volunteers to keep that co-operative spirit going; we decided as an organization that each new staff member would get a Co-ops 101 session as part of their orientation, and we saw a true and lasting increase in staff engagement for community outreach initiatives. I think it’s fair to say that we all became a little more co-operative that day.

When it comes to businesses aligning values with employees and providing them with a sense of purpose in their work, co-operatives have a distinct advantage; they do not need to manufacture a “campaign of purpose”; co-ops are by their very nature, purpose-driven businesses. Seventy percent of employees look to their work to find a sense of purpose, and generally speaking those targets are met at the leadership levels, but for most front-line staff, only fifteen percent feel that same sense of purpose.

One of the easiest, least expensive, and most efficient ways to build a sense of purpose among staff is to educate them about the nature of co-operative business and connect them to their co-operative roots. Research shows that employees who get the purpose they need from work, report better outcomes in work and in life. Better outcomes for employees result in better outcomes for businesses. Purpose-driven businesses realize 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of workforce retention than their competitors. That means higher productivity, less sick days and less staff turnaround. Helping staff at all levels understand their impact and contribution to the business — a business which exists to fill a gap in much-needed products or services for their customers (like telecommunications or financial services), addresses a social problem (like food security or affordable housing), is committed to giving back to the local community and commits to putting people over profit -that simple gift of understanding can connect staff to their purpose with every member interaction and every routine task they do.

It’s encouraging to see credit unions and co-operatives creating opportunities for co-operative learning through internal training initiatives and third party offerings. New initiatives like the ON Board Program offered by OCA, provides an engaging and cost-efficient way for staff, leadership and board members to deepen their co-operative learning and find their shared purpose. For less than $100 per staff member and about 2 hours of time, you can help inspire, educate and get your staff excited about working in this incredible co-operative sector! Equally as important, you can help give them the right words to share their excitement with members, their family and friends and the broader community. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertising, a staggering 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising. The importance of giving your staff the right words cannot be understated; I wish this resource existed when I began my credit union journey!

The value of co-operative education is often overlooked, but when you consider benefits like improved employee satisfaction, lower turnaround, higher productivity and ancillary benefits like transforming your staff into a positive force of passionate and articulate brand ambassadors, it’s clear that a little bit of co-operative learning can go a very long way!

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