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A different take on banking

“When I think about many of the things that were cited with the Occupy movement, they were many of the things that are more commonly found within the context of banks or for-profit institutions,” said Brent Zorgdrager, CEO of the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union (MSCU).

“As I spoke to some university students who were keen on the Occupy movement and were saying, ‘Is capitalism still relevant? We need a new way,’ I offered that there is a way. It’s not new, it’s called credit unions.”

According to a new report from the Credit Union Central of Canada (CUCC), this perspective is gradually becoming more common. As 2012 rang to a close, credit unions associated with the CUCC reported $152.5 billion in assets – up 8.8 per cent from the $140.2 billion in 2011.

Mennonite Savings and Credit Union CEO Brent Zorgdrager has seen the MSCU grow with other credit unions in recent years.[will sloan / the observer]
Mennonite Savings and Credit Union CEO Brent Zorgdrager has seen the MSCU grow with other credit unions in recent years. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
The report goes on to state that a total of 1,762 credit union locations were affiliated with the CUCC, with 5.3 million Canadians onboard. $134.6 billion has been deposited from customers, up $11.1 billion from 2011. As for lending activity, credit unions have seen a 9.8 per cent increase, to $127 billion.

The Mennonite Savings and Credit Union, which has its head office in Kitchener, has eight locations in Southwest Ontario (including Elmira). Zorgdrager said this statistic is in line with the trends he has seen.

“In some cases, we’re ahead of these numbers. Our assets grew 9.5 per cent. If you set aside the credit unions that aren’t part of Canadian Central Credit Union, [membership] is up 2.8 per cent over five years; our membership over the last five years is up 17 per cent.”

He added, “We’re growing faster in our credit union than the Canadian population is growing.”

Conceived as a non-profit, “community-oriented” alternative to banks, credit unions offer customers a participatory role in the institution’s governance. Everyone with an account is a partial owner of the credit union, thus eroding the distinction between customers and shareholders.

“I think it makes us fully accountable,” said Zorgdrager. “We don’t have to split the decisions in half and say, ‘We’re going to do this because it’s disadvantageous to this group, and this other group carries a bigger stick and I want to delight them.’ It’s one conversation.”

According to Zorgdrager, a key difference between banks and his credit union is its emphasis on community.

“We really love to fund all of our members’ loans by our members’ deposits. When I look into the Canadian system, on average, 94 cents on each loan dollar is funded by members’ deposits; in our case $1.01 of every loan dollar is funded by deposits.

“So we are funding within our community, which I think is the best way to go, because when things happened as they did in the U.S., our members, in a sense, were insulated by that. Somebody you know has provided the deposits that’s supporting your loans, and you know these people.”

Still, Zorgdrager feels the system has not reached as many as it should.

“They’re just more familiar with the banks because there’s one on many corners,” he said. “Credit unions, if you even take the name – ‘Is it a union? Does it have something to do with labour?’ So, it’s not particularly well understood.”

He continued, “The credit union is a strong system. Many times people think it’s an inferior system – doesn’t have the quality, or it’s for people who can’t get served elsewhere. That’s not true.”

Unique to the MSCU is their consciously faith-based approach to financial matters – their motto, in fact, is “where faith and finances meet.” Until 2010, the MSCU only admitted members from the Mennonite, Amish, or Brethren in Christ churches. Now, their website advertises that they admit those who “identify and share” their “faith-based values,” even if prospective clients do not attend an Anabaptist church.

What exactly does this mean? Zorgdrager said it involves being onboard with the sentiments enumerated in their Mennonite faith statement.

“We’ll tell you about some of the values of the program that we do,” he said. Now, you don’t have to be a Mennonite, but: acting in a way that’s compassionate, that’s with integrity, being responsible and caring – if that makes sense to you, then feel free to join.”

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