This was a unique experience for me—a tight, focused session with colleagues from around the world, including Canada, Denmark, Germany, Bangladesh, Italy, Uganda, France, the Netherlands and the UK. I was headed to Copenhagen, Denmark for a meeting of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, and I was excited, but also nervous. Twenty four people from nine different values-based banks and credit unions were coming together to discuss how to get more people thinking about what their money is doing while sitting in their bank account. I wondered about all the practicalities, and whether we could get anything done together—whether our home contexts were simply too different to yield enough common ground for the task in front of us.
"Our organizations are so focused on similar societal outcomes that we immediately connected and found common purpose, vision and language."
It turns out my concerns were unfounded. Our organizations are so focused on similar societal outcomes that we immediately connected and found common purpose, vision and language. It didn't hurt that I was in a room with some brilliant, experienced, passionate people, people who were a delight to work so closely and intensely with—people I learned a lot from.
We were facilitated by some of the people who work out of Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, and operate the Global Alliance. They put together an intense and focused three days.
It was a complete and total honour to participate. We talked about some major themes and drilled down and down and down to create a strategic plan to take advantage of the work and resources at all of our home institutions to get more people in our communities and beyond thinking about sustainable banking and what it can mean for people around the world. I can't get into the specifics of the plan, but one of the major themes that came out, initially voiced by Peter Blom, the CEO of Triodos, is the concept of being a citizen banker.
In these days of serious and deserved bank distrust, we discussed that the entrepreneurs and organizations who are helping their fellow citizens rise from poverty, are dealing with global climate change, and are creating a more inclusive, just society need partners to finance their brave and necessary work. There's a growth model in the financing of these activities that creates profitable lending for the bank, while focusing on social-purpose financing.
Banking can be the intermediary in providing money to people's and society's aspirations. But in the vast majority of cases, it isn't. And so we need citizen bankers - people who demand that their money is put to uses that improve our society and enhance our communities.
"If you walk into a big bank and ask what your money is invested in while they have it to use, they likely wouldn't be able to answer."
If you walk into a big bank and ask what your money is invested in while they have it to use, they likely wouldn't be able to answer. The benefit of a credit union, or at least of democratic finance is that the money they handle can be tracked and there should be much greater transparency to follow the money and see what it is funding. A citizen banker is someone who desires to invest in their neighbours and communities and into projects and entrepreneurs that improve our society, and sees their bank or credit union as an intermediary to make that happen.
As credit unions go through their long term strategic planning, I offer this as a model for credit unions who are looking to help address the significant challenges our communities face through the very tools at their disposal, and challenge them to move from being community-based organizations to values-based organizations. To be Citizen Bankers.
William Azaroff lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is Director, Business & Community Development at Vancity, a values-based financial co-operative serving the needs of its 500,000 member-owners and their communities. William leads a team who work with local businesses, not-for-profits, social enterprises and co-operatives that contribute to a vibrant, sustainable, inclusive local economy, and engage Vancity's members and the public around their Good Money™ brand.