The cooperative advantage: Are you using it?

Credit unions are cooperatives – although not all know it.

Now you do.

But the important reality is that, as a cooperative, a credit union has a potentially massive ecosystem to tap into, composed of like minded cooperators.

Few credit unions mine that vein.  It’s a mistake. A huge mistake.

I have often heard from executives at cooperatives – agriculture and rural electric in particular – that they just don’t get why credit unions in their region aren’t reaching out to join in joint venture marketing initiatives to get out the message that cooperatives, by their very nature, are entirely different from for profit businesses.

They exist to serve members. Not to make profits for shareholders and a few owners.  

That is as big as differences get.

So, how big is the cooperative universe in the United States? Nobody knows, not with any precision. In its 2016 annual report the National Cooperative Business Association wrote this: “In 1997, the U.S. Census Bureau stopped identifying the cooperative business sector in any of its census or business reporting surveys. Since then the only available data on co-ops came from federally-supported research by the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives in 2007. That study found that there were 29,000 cooperatives in the U.S. that account for more than $3 trillion in assets, more than $500 billion in revenue, and sustain nearly two million jobs. NCBA CLUSA now estimates that there are closer to 40,000 cooperative businesses in the U.S., but census data is needed to confirm that number.”

In another metric, the National Cooperative Business Association annually releases a list of the biggest 100 co-ops.  Here’s the 2017 list.  Note that Navy Federal ranked as the eighth biggest cooperative.  Pentagon Federal is 65. BECU is 88.

There are many big brands on the list: Land O Lakes. Ace. True Value.  Blue Diamond. Ocean Spray. Cabot Creamery. Welch Foods.

There also are many rural electric co-ops that rarely are known outside their locale but where they serve they usually are well known and well respected. Many of them, by the way, now are also extending into offer high-speed Internet to their rural customers who thus far have mainly been excluded from the digital revolution.

(The United Kingdom, incidentally, has much better data about cooperatives. Here’s a snapshot from the recent annual report: “The Co-op Economy 2018 report highlights how the UK’s 7,226 independent co-ops turned over £36.1bn last year, contributing 1.9% to the UK’s GDP of £1.9tn. This represents an increase from the £35.2bn in turnover in the previous year. Co-ops also employ 235,000 people, compared to 226,000 in 2017. Their membership has grown from 12m in 2017 to 13m in 2018.”)

Very possibly cooperatives are as important in the U.S. economy. Just think of the many unheralded agricultural cooperatives, for instance. The numbers add up.

What’s the point? Here it is and it is sharp: what is your credit union doing to co-market with cooperatives in your location?

The answer – typically – is nothing.

That’s a mistake. Loyal customers and members of cooperatives already are convinced of the benefit of a co-op.  You don’t have to persuade an REI member that a cooperative is a better way to do business. They already know.

What can credit unions do with cooperatives? Think of jointly sponsored events, even a co-op fair where a half dozen or a dozen co-ops come together, offer samples and information to guests, and generally talk up the cooperative difference.

Print up a short history of the Rochdale weavers and how their determination to create a better way established the cooperative framework we still follow 175 years later.  I have never talked with anybody about the Rochdale weavers and their principles and not left that person impressed with the cooperative difference.

Members of cooperatives are prime potential credit union members. Ask them. Woo them. Ask local cooperatives for help in reaching out to their members.

Few credit unions take this marketing approach and there is no good reason why not.

Many credit unions have lost their founding SEG – once the bedrock relationship of most credit unions – but now there are thousands of like minded cooperatives to joint venture with.

What’s stopping you?

Robert McGarvey

Robert McGarvey

A blogger and speaker, Robert McGarvey is a longtime journalist who has covered credit unions extensively, notably for Credit Union Times as well as the New York Times and TheStreet, ... Web: Details

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