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Jay-Ann Gilfoy is president and chief executive officer of Meridian Credit Union

ESG and CSR may be relatively new concepts in the corporate sphere, but they’ve been bedrock values of co-operatives since they were founded. Before “environmental, social and governance” and “corporate social responsibility” became initiatives in the private sector, co-operatives were already doing business differently. As an alternative to publicly traded companies, co-operatives harness the power of the collective to create more open, inclusive communities, cultures and economies.

A closer look at the co-operative business model and values offers inspiration.

Democratic and giving. For starters, co-operatives are, by definition, member-owned. Boards are elected democratically – one member, one vote, not based on the number of shares held. Credit unions, as co-operative financial institutions, seek profits but on average inject 3 per cent of pretax earnings into charitable causes and community initiatives to help build resilient communities.

Inclusive and equitable. Co-operatives impressed me early on in my first role at a credit union in British Columbia. Chatting with a Nigerian-born cab driver, he described how a loan from us enabled him to buy his taxi and launch his business. Unable to get capital elsewhere, he became one of more than 10 million Canadians accessing full-service banking within the credit union system. We’re also an equity trendsetter. Credit unions in B.C. and Alberta were breaking norms by lending money to women in the 1940s and today almost one-third of Canada’s 209 credit unions have women CEOs. I’m Meridian’s first.

Addressing inequality. The genesis of Canada’s co-operatives harks back to 19th-century England and continental Europe, where in reaction to industrialization, craftspeople sought equal economic participation.

Canadian credit unions were founded to help those who couldn’t get loans. In Quebec in 1900, Alphonse Desjardins pioneered the model, financing farm equipment. In Ontario, farmers who couldn’t get credit joined forces, as did ethnic communities. Meridian traces its roots back to fruit growers in the Niagara region, while Vancity started by providing mortgages in working class Vancouver, highlighting Western Canada’s tradition of co-operatives.

Thirty-nine per cent of British Columbians now bank with credit unions. In Manitoba it’s 51 per cent, Saskatchewan 41 per cent, and in Ontario 12 per cent. The sector had loans outstanding of $243.8-billion in 2022.

And for all the verbiage about small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) constituting the spine of Canada’s economy, guess who’s their biggest lender? The co-operative movement. Credit unions finance 21 per cent of SMEs. We’re the backbone of the backbone.

Tech firsts. It may also surprise leaders we’ve been at the vanguard of tech innovation. Credit unions launched the first full-service ATMs, and we pooled funds to establish the first and only national no-fee ATM network. We offered the first debit cards, the first fully functional online banking and the first mobile cheque deposit app. Next stop, open banking, underlining economic empowerment, inclusivity and transparency.

Purpose leads to profit. Pooling of purpose and profit, tied to member well-being, undoubtedly creates economic opportunities for communities and hiring. And credit unions have a local culture. It is similar to the contrast between municipal and federal governments. We’re closer to the action and effect change locally. Bricks-and-mortar credit union branches still exist in 380 Canadian communities that have no physical bank branch.

While publicly traded companies are businesses with a quarter-to-quarter focus, co-operatives’ leaders can think longer-term and attract diverse talent. Millennials and Gen Zs want purposeful work and that’s our wheelhouse.

Make no mistake, we need to earn profits. But given our purpose, in a down year, we’d consider creative solutions before resorting to layoffs.

Certainly, credit unions have challenges. Principally, we can’t raise funds in the market. Capital comes from retained earnings, grown organically through prudent business decisions and management. But with more than a century of stability – a highly desirable trait for financial institutions – credit unions keep pace with technology and an evolving economy.

Aligning investment with values. While we still require disciplined credit processes, a common refrain is “we help when others won’t.” We look for ways to say “yes” in new or different circumstances, like lending to the cab driver from Nigeria.

We’re currently working with the Métis Nation of Ontario to help Métis people buy homes and build wealth for their families. The Métis Nation kicks in equity, the homeowner a smaller amount, and we provide the loan. Everyone should get a shot at prosperity and these partnerships synchronize with our values.

There’s no question that it’s hard to bolt-on values after the fact. It’s best if they’re core to the bedrock of your organization. And at co-operatives, they are. So, stand for the right things and build them into everything you do.

Societally, we’re turning a corner. Increasingly, people are drawn to organizations like co-operatives that are purpose-driven and ready to engage in, and impact, social discourse. Ready to join the movement?

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.