The United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives, raising awareness of the value of these enterprises in reducing poverty, generating employment and improving social integration.

Co-operatives have been part of the Canadian fabric for over 150 years. Today, 9,000 co-operatives and credit unions provide products and services to over 18 million members with over $330 billion in assets, owned by their members and the communities they serve.  

They exist across diverse sectors (including finance, insurance, agri-food and supply, wholesale and retail, housing, health and the service sector), are owned by their members, and aim to have a balanced pursuit of profit and stakeholder interests.

This year, I joined my first co-operative board, TREC Renewable Energy Co-operative, which is involved in developing community-owned renewable power. One of TREC’s initiatives is SolarShare, a non-profit co-op that offers Ontario residents the chance to support the development of new community-owned solar projects across Ontario.

There are some great examples of how this sector demonstrates the value of community-based finance. For instance, the Vancouver City Savings Union, today known as Vancity Credit Union, started in 1946 when a few people got together and decided that a credit union would be a great way to pool and share resources. They started with $22 in assets. Today, Vancity has $14.4 billion in assets under management (AUM), with over 300,000 members and 2,000 employees.

In Ontario alone, there are over 150 credit unions with just under 650 branches owned by more than 1.2 million members. The total loan volume of the member credit unions of Credit Union Central of Ontario exceeds $3 billion.

But what’s so great about them? Beyond these facts and figures, co-operatives and credit unions represent a very different way of conducting business. For one, their purpose is to serve the common needs of their members rather than shareholders. Voting is based on the one member/one vote system, rather than the one vote/one share system.

The allocation of profits is also different. Profits are allocated to members who use the co-operative most, rather than those who own the most shares. As well, co-operatives and credit unions tend to invest in improving service for members and promoting the well-being of communities.

There are seven principles that unite co-operatives around the world:

  1. Voluntary and open membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Member economic participation
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education, training and information
  6. Co-operation among co-operatives
  7. Concern for community

Want to join in on the co-op celebration? Attend the International 2012 Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec City from October 8 to 11. Check out the messages that Canadians have already left in support of the Summit.

Here are some quick links to learn more about the co-operative movement in Canada:

Joanna Reynolds

Joanna was the Associate Director of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and worked with MaRS and Social Innovation Generation National on the advancement of social finance in Canada. See more…