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Illustration by Alex Gorodskoy

It would be easy to begrudge Vancity for receiving yet another honour for its corporate citizenship if it wasn’t working so damn hard to earn it.

Canada’s largest community credit union has been tackling some top-of-mind social issues ranging from racism and refugees to gender equality and affordable housing. Meantime, its membership and assets under management keep growing. Today, Vancity manages about $25.6 billion in assets, up seven per cent from 2015, and has a goal to grow that further to $40 billion by 2020. It wants to see its membership reach 600,000, up from about 523,000 today.

“Even though we’re good, we always think we can aspire to be great,” says Vancity president and CEO Tamara Vrooman, who oversees the credit union with 59 branches in Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Victoria, Squamish and Alert Bay in B.C.

“We are always looking for ways to improve our performance even when our performance is, relatively speaking, very strong.”

It’s that never settle, do-better attitude that has helped Vancity land the title of Canada’s Best Corporate Citizen in 2016 for the second year in a row. The credit union also earned the top spot in 2013. It placed second in both 2014 and 2015.

Vancity’s overall score was 73.8 per cent in the latest ranking, the highest among the nine financial institutions included. Desjardins placed second and HSBC Bank Canada was third, while the Big Six banks rounded out the rest of the list, led by RBC. (Full disclosure: Vancity is a minority investor in Corporate Knights. It played no role in compiling the rankings.)

Vancity had some of the best scores in most of the 10 categories relevant to the financial services industry, including energy and waste productivity, gender diversity and low employee turnover. Its lowest scores were for water use and taxes paid.

 

Do good, but can do better

While some organizations may get defensive when addressing their lowest scores, Vancity sees it as an excuse to do better.

To help lower its water use, also flagged as a weakness in previous rankings, the credit union has been installing low flow and time-release faucets in washrooms and kitchens across its operations. It’s also working on eliminating the use of irrigation systems, where allowed, and moving to drip irrigation where those systems are required.

“I hope the next time we measure up on the water side we’ll see a significant improvement,” says Vrooman. “We do pay attention to the data and we do look for ways to continue to improve.”

Vancity also scored lower on the ratio of cash taxes paid, which Vrooman says is due to some tax losses carried forward and tax credits it took advantage of in previous years. Vancity says a special deduction for credit unions has since been phased out at the federal level, meaning credit unions are now being taxed at the same rate as banks and other large corporations. The province is also reviewing whether to continue with a similar tax credit offered to credit unions.

“If you look historically, over a longer period of time, the taxes are more stable,” Vrooman says.

 

Tipping the scale on gender diversity

Vancity continues to score well with gender diversity and actually tips the scale in the opposite direction compared to most organizations across Canada. Among four executives that currently report directly to Vrooman, two are women and two are men. Eight of its nine board members are women, up from six out of nine in 2015.

Vrooman says they have an equal number of women and men vying for board positions, which are a three-year term. In recent years, members (also represented by roughly an equal number of women and men) have been electing more women, she says.

“We put a very balanced and diverse pool of candidates out to the membership.”

Vancity is also well known for products and services that help to address some of society’s most challenging issues, in particular those faced by its core membership in and around Metro Vancouver. Examples include its mixer mortgage, which helps one or more roommates, co-workers, friends or family members buy a home together; Visa cards with profits that go towards environmental causes, and the “fair and fast” loan that claims to be friendlier and more affordable than traditional payday loans. A couple of years ago, Vancity also unveiled Canada’s first 100 per cent fossil-fuel-free mutual fund. Most recently, it launched Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada’s first Schedule 1 community-investment bank focused exclusively on the triple bottom line.

 

A ‘force for good’

“Vancity is trying to advance the credit union in a way that it’s a force for good,” says Coro Strandberg, a sustainability strategist, president of Vancouver-based Strandberg Consulting and former board member at Vancity from 1987 to 2000. “By banking with Vancity, you become part of a community of people who are fostering a sustainable community.”

Strandberg says it’s a virtuous-circle business model that also makes good business sense.

“The more they grow, the more social good they can do, the more people will be attracted to them, bank and do business with them,” says Strandberg. “This is the new approach to CSR [corporate social responsibility]. More and more companies, now and in the future, will be pressed to find their own social ambition and build it into the core of what they do, which is what customers, employees, governments and the public are looking for.”


 

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