Cooperation has brought us very far. It is the essence of our movement. Cooperation has fostered many CUSOs, which have done much to bolster the participating credit unions and to improve the financial lives of individual members. But CUSO contributions to the movement are not particularly heralded or quantified. CUSOs almost operate under the radar. Consequently, they are somewhat under-valued and under-appreciated.
Nevertheless there is much more we can do – must do -- with cooperation and CUSOs.
Barriers to Cooperation
In theory, cooperation is easy, but in practice it is difficult. It does not seem to be a natural inclination among organizations.
Indeed there are many barriers to cooperation. These include such notions as: 1) I already have my piece of the pie and I am not willing to risk or share it; 2) I need to protect my self interest first; 3) I am better than any others I might cooperate with; and 4) I cannot risk my autonomy or authority, which is likely to happen when I join with a group.
For effective cooperation, all these need to be overcome.
Breaching barriers to cooperation takes “right thinking.” If you start with the premise that Americans deserve credit unions and credit union pricing, then you are on your way to getting there, though arrival is not a certainty. “Right thinking” for cooperation requires a number of achievements: 1) a willingness to leave your ego at the door; 2) a dedication to member interest above institutional and staff interest; 3) a realization that a contribution may not be returned dollar for dollar for a long time; and 4) an understanding that at least for the time being “close counts.”
Leaders of cooperative ventures have achieved this kind of thinking. They understand they will have to reap their value in the distant future but are willing to make their cooperative pledge in any case.
How to Organize is Critical
Many a good idea has been killed aborning. Some people even with the best intentions want to study an idea to death, make committees, maneuver onto committees and the like.
These are difficult circumstances under which to hatch bright ideas. A better approach is to gather a small group, one of like-minded persons, that is, of equal outlook, drive and vision. Get the idea up and running. Show some small successes. This demonstrates to others that the effort is viable and growing. Then others will come in.
We Need to Quantify
We take cooperative ventures and CUSOs too much for granted. They are there and they are working but we do not really understand how much they have and are contributing to the health of the movement and to member lives. We should try to quantify how much these efforts are adding to credit union bottom lines.
For example, how much has indirect lending grown thanks to CUDL? How much has ATM use increased owing to the ATM cooperative networks? How large a role did the CUSOs play in the mortgage boom of recent years? We assume those results would have been realized without the CUSOs, but probably this is wrong. We should be talking about what CUSOs are doing, and quantitatively how they are helping. This would bring them up from under the radar where their contributions would be far more appreciated.
In the capitalistic marketplace of banks a kind of survival of the fittest leads to mergers and efficiencies, but often leaving wreckage along the way. In the cooperative system, how do we prod the productive side of cooperations and efficiencies? It takes more of an effort. We have to have vision and then understand that sacrifice and cooperation are needed to realize that vision.
Or to look at it another way, there might be 20 or so banks in this country of $100 billion in assets. There are roughly 100 credit unions of $1 billion in assets. The only way of really keeping up under this circumstance is to use the powers of cooperation to combine and leverage our assets. Hang together or hang separately.
We have come a long way with cooperation, and there are very good signs that cooperation will thrive. But much remains to be done, and we should set ourselves to doing it.