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The Vancity Savings Credit Union branch in Lynn Creek, North Vancouver

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Jeremy Bird was fed up with his bank, so he decided to take his business elsewhere.

Tired of the fees and eager to see his financial institution invest more into his community, Bird made the switch to a credit union about a year ago. And he has no regrets.

"I found the credit union is incredibly friendly. They remember my name when I go in there," he said.

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Like many who gravitate toward credit unions, Bird considers himself a community-oriented person. He's involved in a cycling advisory group in London, Ont., and is active in local politics.

"When I signed up for the credit union, they gave a $50 donation to a local youth charity, right off the hop," he said. "Their profits go to community organizations, supporting where I live."

Credit unions offer many of the same products that major banks do: chequing accounts and mortgages, for example. Bank cards can be used at any credit union ATM across the country — not just the one to which a customer belongs — without charges.

What differs is that credit unions are co-operative. Members get involved by buying shares and becoming owners. For example, to join Vancity Credit Union, members must hold at least five shares with a total value of $5. Members also have the opportunity to get a share of profits.

"Their objective is to serve their members. They're not driven by shareholders and they're not driven by strictly a profit motive for shareholders. They're service driven," said Martha Durdin, president CEO of the trade group Credit Union Central of Canada.

There are some 700 different credit unions — or caisses populaires, in Quebec — across the country.

The democratic element is a big draw for many members, said Ian Glassford, chief financial officer at Edmonton-based Servus Credit Union, which has more than 100 branches across Alberta.

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"It is one member, one vote. I don't care how much money you have with the credit union," he said.

Those with social issues on their mind may also be drawn to credit unions.

"Each one picks a part of the world where they want to make a difference, and the fun with a credit union is that you can find the one that best aligns with your values as well," said Glassford.

But credit unions have a lot to offer from a dollars-and-cents standpoint as well, said David McVay, a financial services industry consultant in Toronto.

"Where an increasing number of credit unions are gaining advantage is offering better value. On that dimension, one of the emerging trend is toward free chequing," he said.

"The other big differentiator on the value side for many, but not all, is very competitive and transparent pricing on mortgages."

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Yet, it's been a challenge to snatch market share from the big banks, which are more centralized and able to launch big national advertising campaigns.

That's changing, though. Big players like Vancity in B.C. or Meridian in Ontario are "taking on the big banks head-on, and quite successfully," McVay said. The trend is toward consolidation among the smaller players, he added.

"If you haven't heard about credit unions, stay tuned, because as these mergers happen, there will be powerful brands emerging that you'll hear more and more about."

Louise Wallace, who has belonged to a credit union for 15 years, said she's worried the local flavour is being lost as credit unions vie for business with the big banks. She laments that she may have to switch to a different institution when her mortgage comes up for renewal.

Her small marketing firm in Salmon Arm, B.C., used to provide services to her local credit union, but now those functions and others have become centralized, she said.

Wallace says she doesn't harbour hard feelings toward her former client, noting the 2008 financial crisis was hard on everyone in the financial sector.

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"We love them because they're small. But they can't compete small," she said. "My sad realization is, they're just like everyone else."

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