Group 2

A learning journey from GLS to Vancity: insights from Canada’s community building


3 January 2022

By Julian Mertens, Spokesperson and Communications Specialist, GLS Bank


I spent the first two weeks in June 2018, at Vancity Credit Union. I was hosted by the Communications and Marketing department, which welcomed me with open arms. Rhonda Nowak, the external communications manager organized a full schedule. During my stay, I was able to have extensive exchanges and gain a comprehensive insight into the organization, its values, its work methods, and its communications strategy. This personal experience was inspiring and useful, as I got to look behind the scenes and was able to talk to many Vancity staff freely and openly.

“For our members” – this is the foundation of every Vancity activity. The Credit Union is owned by its 525,000 members and contributes 30 per cent of its net income to them through dividends, sponsorship, and grants to community organizations. The ties are strong, and the needs are continuously identified on several levels, in personal encounters, in the 59 branches, in focus groups, in regular surveys.  In short: “Our values-based banking model is grounded in the local economy“. 

I got to know several Vancity members, who identified with the values-based approach of Vancity, including the marketing supplier Fairware, whose founder told me that it just made sense to align her sustainable business model with her finances. Vancouver has the third highest housing prices in the world. So affordable housing is a major issue and Vancity is doing its best to finance and consult with various organizations (i.e., currently, there are various religious associations in Vancouver, whose land has attracted investors’ attention). Another issue is the high cost of living which is why Vancity is a “Living Wage” employer and is trying to encourage its supply chain to follow its lead.

The colleagues from community investment are all about creating a positive impact. I was amazed by the way Vancity is engaged and embedded in its community. This is especially true in terms of people in need. This becomes most obvious at Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, where many homeless and low-income people live. Right there, Vancity provides access to basic banking services with Pigeon Park Savings. It’s an impressive story, inspiringly told by, including the staff in the branch. Vancity contracts staffing out to an organization that works with and understands the needs of, its members in the area.

There are also social enterprises funded by Vancity, like United We Can. For many “binners”, who collect bottles and containers to redeem deposits, it’s a convenient way to return their collected items. Additionally, the Vancity Foundation promotes the Binners’ Project, which can increase people’s confidence and dignity. Another project that could be adapted elsewhere is the financial literacy programme.

During my stay, I also witnessed the inauguration of a new mosaic in front of the Vancouver HQ: Reconciliation, which has been a key issue in Canada’s development, is at the heart of Vancity’s understanding of its role in society. It aims to include the principles of reconciliation into its work and partnerships. Apart from its strong public commitment, I also observed how it was communicated on Facebook and its blog.

Speaking of making yourself heard, professionally I was very eager to learn about some of Vancity’s approaches to communication. The internal coms team works hard to provide staff with the information they need and present it in an original and creative way their audience appreciates. The external communications team has gained continuous media attention with their own reports on public issues, such as the financial health of women. They work because they combine original data with a comprehensive analysis and a values-based perspective.

‘Target your audience’ is key to Vancity’s blog includes useful content that’s not only relevant for millennials. It includes financial advice, events tips and more. Much of Vancity’s activity used to be promoted on Facebook but now there’s a critical reflection about Facebook, especially after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

Finally, I would also like to mention that Vancity has established a reporting scheme that includes the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and is partially working with the agile working method. 

These are just a selection of impressions I experienced during my stay. As a result of my visit, I can identify strengths and potential for GLS Bank and our work, I took away several ideas and got to know new colleagues for future exchanges. To have a deeper understanding of each other can be a fundamental advantage for GABV members, especially in a competitive and changing environment that financial institutions will face in the coming years.

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