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What Cooperation Among Cooperatives Looks Like in Practice

Emily Nail, VP of Cooperative Strategies at Coastal Credit Union, joins us on The Remarkable Credit Union podcast

Most credit union employees are familiar with the cooperative principles, including Principle #6: Cooperation Among Cooperatives. Yet while credit unions have a proven track record of collaboration, it seems this principle has yet to be fully realized between credit unions and other cooperatives. That’s why when we saw that Coastal Credit Union had hired a VP of Cooperative Strategies, we took notice. We’d never heard of someone with that job title at a credit union before.

Emily Nail is not only Coastal Credit Union’s first VP of Cooperative Strategies, she also serves as Executive Director of the Coastal Credit Union Foundation and previously served as Executive Director of the Cooperative Council of North Carolina (CCNC). We were thrilled to invite her to The Remarkable Credit Union podcast to talk about her new role, her take on North Carolina’s rich cooperative history, and this month’s BIG question:

How can credit unions collaborate with other local co-ops to work toward building a thriving cooperative economy?


Key takeaways:

  1. Lack of education around co-ops seems to be one reason so many people in the United States lack awareness of the movement. The Cooperative Leadership Camp for high school students is a powerful and hands-on way to raise awareness about co-ops from an early age.
  2. Other ways to raise awareness? We’ll most effectively raise awareness through grassroots efforts — by making sure your members understand the power of credit unions and empowering them to spread the word for you.
  3. What does cooperation among cooperatives look like in practice? Emily talked about how that can look like a huge event, like the Philanthropy Summit she helped organize, which was a powerful way to bring together credit union foundations, nonprofits, and co-ops who share a commitment to serving and empowering local communities. It can also take the form of smaller, cross-industry partnerships — for example, Coastal Credit Union has PTMs, personal teller machines, at a local food co-op and makes it easy for food co-op members to join as members of the credit union.
  4. The more that co-ops work together, the more we can raise the visibility of the movement. Cabot Creamery is an example of a household name co-op that is very much invested in youth education and in partnering with other co-ops.
  5. And lastly, we were really curious why there are so many co-ops in North Carolina compared to other states. Well, part of the reason seems to be that it simply got an early start. Emily talked about how in the early 1900s, the state had a real wealth gap, and people formed co-ops out of necessity as a way of combating poverty. Co-ops took root there in ways they haven’t in other states, and those other states, like my home state of Oregon, could definitely look to North Carolina for blueprints or guidance on how to build a more cooperative economy.


Real the full transcript:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Remarkable Credit Union podcast. We created our podcast to help credit union leaders think outside of the box about marketing, technology, and community impact.

Each episode we bring on expert guests from inside and outside of the industry for conversations about innovation. Our goal is to challenge your preconceptions about business as usual, and provide you with actionable takeaways that you can use to grow your membership, improve the financial health of your cooperative, and magnify the positive impact you have in your community.

I’m Cameron Madill, the CEO and one of the co-owners at PixelSpoke.

And I’m Kerala Taylor, senior manager of marketing, and also a co-owner here at PixelSpoke. I’m really excited today to tackle the big question, which is how can credit unions collaborate with other local co-ops to work toward building a thriving cooperative economy?

And I’m so excited today to welcome Emily Nails. She’s the VP of Cooperative Strategies for Coastal Credit Union and the executive director of the Coastal Credit Union Foundation.

She’s also a certified credit union development educator, and prior to Coastal Credit Union, she served as executive director of the Cooperative Council of North Carolina, CCNC for short. She did that for over six years and also has 11 years of prior banking experience.
Lastly, Emily is a military spouse and she has lived in six different places over the last 13 years as part of that journey.

Emily, thank you so much for joining us.

Hey, thanks so much for having me.

So I just wanted to start. I reached out to you initially because I had read a press release about your new role at Coastal Credit Union, and it was actually a job title I’d never heard of before in the credit union industry. And I’m just wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit more about your role.

So my role is actually new to Coastal as well. So it’s this cooperative strategies VP, and of course the ED part of our foundation, which is a normal title. But this cooperative strategies really stemmed from the idea of this cooperative world that we are living in, that I come from, and that I’m bringing to Coastal.
And it’s that thought process of thinking globally and acting locally, and really bringing together the different moving parts of the cooperative movement to make a bigger impact for not only coastal but all of our neighboring community organizations.

That’s so fascinating. And then also, I was really interested to learn about your background on the Cooperative Council of North Carolina, and that’s where you served as executive director before joining Coastal Credit Union.
I’m curious how that organization approached connecting and promoting co-ops in general.

Oh, definitely.

So the co-op council was a new world for me coming from the credit union space back in New Mexico, and it was struggling. They hired me on to reenergize, reinvigorate, relogo, rebrand. And we did that, and it’s amazing.

Their mission vision value is to educate, connect, and promote the cooperative movement here in the North Carolina specifically. But they do that really in a unique way, because they drive different committee structures to produce different events, learning opportunities, and programs to the greater population.
And whether that’s the cooperative employees, the cooperative board members, or the local community, their structure is that their grassroots is starting at the committee level with volunteers from the different cooperative industries and building that for the needs of that membership.

That being said, I will just say one of my favorite programs that they did was the cooperative leadership camp, which is happening in June. They take up to 100 high school students out to a sleep away camp for a week, and these students build a worker-owned t-shirt cooperative. And on top of that, all of the different industries across our state that are members of the co-op council come and have a hands-on experience for the students to learn the industry and to learn how they can get involved, whether it’s as a volunteer or after high school getting a job, or learning a trades.

And, while I’ll say, and I say this all the time, am not a huge fan of high schoolers. I’m five one, so most of them are taller than me, and they’re loud and they’re opinionated and I can’t just pick them up my kids and move them to a different location. Going to camp for seven years, I’ve grown to really appreciate the light bulb that goes off in their heads when they learn about the cooperative business model, and how it makes such a big difference in the communities that are underserved and how cooperatives solve problems.

So that’s one of my favorite, and I could keep on going trust me for hours about this. And I’m still participating in that even though I’m not with the organization anymore. But really that opportunity to teach our future leaders the cooperative movement is just huge.

And I think it’s so rare. I have to say, before coming to PixelSpoke, I knew virtually nothing about workaround co-ops, and we transitioned to being a workaround co-op ourselves in 2020. And I knew very little about credit unions too. And I was actually talking to a client recently who said that he’d had a savings account as a kid at a credit union. A lot of his loans were with credit unions, but he didn’t really understand the movement himself until he started working at a credit union.

And I guess I just feel like the general public has a pretty limited understanding of what it means to be a financial cooperative. I’m curious, as someone who’s been in the movement, do you have any thoughts on why this is?

That’s so funny, because there’s two different experiences that I’ve had in this. One of which being in New Mexico where nobody knew what the credit union meant, and very clueless, like you said, your clients. And then coming to North Carolina, it’s oddly an opposite issue, because we are home to the second-largest credit union in the world.

And so people acknowledge the credit union, they know about the credit union, they want to be a member of the credit union. However, their understanding is that membership is very limited, and they aren’t able to join because of the credit union charter that we had here in North Carolina.
So I think really it depends on where you’re at on that. But yes, there is a lack of information out there on what a member owned organization is, no matter what industry we’re in. And the credit unions have to do a really good job of explaining that while we provide banking services, our profit goes back to those folks that use our services instead of a shareholder that’s just gaining the profit.

So that’s how I like to describe it, because when you say member owned, which I also love to use that all the time, people are confused that they’re going to have to buy into the credit union. So it is a challenge, it’s a huge challenge.

Maybe take that question and get even more philosophical, because I think there’s these interesting parallel things happening of educating the broader public and frankly even the members of credit unions about what a financial institution that is cooperatively structured, how it operates, what the benefits are.
There’s also this broader movement of co-ops in general, which you’re really deeply schooled in. And I think just for our audience if you haven’t heard this, this was a light bulb moment for me years ago, that roughly speaking, there’s four kinds of co-ops. I’m sure you’ll correct me on this, Emily. But approximately, you have consumer co-ops, typically a grocery store or a credit union where the people who use the services are the owners. You have worker co-ops like PixelSpoke, where the people who work at the business are the ones who own it.

And then you have seller co-ops, where a bunch of folks come together to sell and increase their collective power in the market, and then you have buyer co-ops.
So it’s this big world and it’s a label that means many different things, but there are these deeply felt principles which are shared between, of course, credit unions as co-ops and the broader cooperative movement.

But I’m curious that if you have any thoughts about why credit unions seem a little reluctant to message around their cooperative status, which to say, my name is mycreditunion.coop. Or when we welcome you, we say thank you for joining our cooperative. I don’t hear a lot of that language out there.

That’s a great question, and one that I’m still digging down into. We do have a couple of credit unions in North Carolina that have cooperative in their title, so that’s a step in the right direction, having that cooperative highlighted.
But there’s been a lot of conversation throughout the movement I know that we should brand ourselves and have something. Remember the Got Milk campaign that was a national campaign?

So credit unions tried to do that a couple of years ago with your open your eyes to a credit union. And so it just didn’t get enough traction to really get down into what the credit union movement was. And I think it’s a bigger issue, because the different credit unions are very different in their charters and who they serve and how they can serve those people.

So I think with the credit unions, you have to go the opposite way and really have the grassroots efforts, and having membership understand that and spread that for you. Because with all the different charters, whether you’re a SEG charter, which is select employee group, so only those folks can join the credit union. Or if you’re a community charter or a state charter, there’s very limiting rules against who can come in as members.
So that is the hard part about the cooperatives in credit unions, that membership.

And I’m curious, with all the things you’ve done, it’s always helpful to hear specific stories or examples. Do you have any stories around the work you’ve done to date with cooperatives, i.e. non-credit unions, and maybe just anything out on the horizon you’re excited about as well?

Yeah, so when I took this role here at Coastal, one of the enticing things was the resources that Coastal has as a credit union. We have all these departments that can help me further my initiative or my job. So we really went out right away and did some different things that people weren’t really used to.
So one of the first things was we hosted a philanthropy summit. So part of my title is with the foundation, but really it was more about bringing together all these different credit union foundations and these credit unions who had nonprofit partners. And creating an opportunity, a space, a platform to share best practices, to share what we were doing in the credit union and how we were collaborating. And then really bringing in the education side for nonprofits to really highlight their impact in the community.

So this event happened, it actually just happened in March. So we were in the planning stages for a bit, but we had a huge attendance and a great reaction to this combined effort. And we haven’t seen this in the state where you had all different credit unions and cooperatives coming together to highlight the service that we’re doing, our principles, and why cooperatives were so different than your for-profit corporations.
So that was a really fun event. We’ve done different events with our food cooperatives locally, where we’re really trying to pull in the opportunities to use services. So for one example, we have at Coastal, instead of teller lines in our branches, we have PTMs. So you go up and touch the screen and the teller is virtual on the screen.

So we have a PCM at our local food cooperative, downtown Raleigh, and then their members then can join as members. So that was a really awesome opportunity to collaborate.

We’ve also pulled in, small things make a bigger difference, the opportunities to have the food cooperative cater different events for us. So they are really showcasing what they do as a food cooperative. They have an amazing hot bar that we can use all the time.

Looking into the horizon, I know you had in a past podcast you talked about the evergreen project and affordable housing. We definitely are on that conversation around affordable housing here. So we’re trying to connect the dots in different philanthropic spaces that we can make a bigger impact with that.

And in that conversation comes in these different cooperatives, because electric cooperatives have a huge vested interest in affordable housing and providing lead certified housing in the sense that they are able to provide the solar farming and access to people that might not typically have that kind of access.

So when you get down to the root of it, cooperatives are meant to provide access to solutions that people have. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. And any ideas around that we’ve really tried to take and run with it, and done some different things. So those are just a few things. And then of course internally there’s a lot of cooperation that we’re trying to do across our departments that don’t traditionally work together. So that’s just on the smaller scale.

I’d love to ask a follow-up question that’s maybe a little bit disjointed, but hopefully we can follow the bouncing ball.

So yeah, I was in a board meeting recently for a nonprofit, and I remember I was asked to vote on a resolution to move funds from wherever to Chase Bank, and I kind of threw up in my throat a little bit. It was just like, I think we’re going to do something else. And there was an urgent need, so that was an interesting example of a, I love what you’re doing, where often nonprofits who are so mission-driven are not really thinking about where their money is sleeping at night.

And I think the thing that was raised was, their business services are pretty easy. And I was like, yeah, but.And then one thing that I just wanted to highlight that I love that you shared was, I know at PixelSpoke we’ve had multiple I would say a little bit red in the face moments where it’s like, oh, we’re so proud of being a certified B corporation, who are all of our vendors?

And it was like, huh, did we even look at a B Corp for, you fill in the blank. And then we had another moment, Kerala, a year or two ago where we’re like, do we even have any co-ops we work with?

We work with a lot of credit union and we of course bank only with credit unions, but do we even have? And so for us just building a preferred list of partners who were both in our case, certified B corporations and co-ops of some sort, removed all that friction.

So looping this hopefully into a question, I would just love to know, is there any co-op out there, I know there’s so many, but just that I think people often, it’s such a big space but it’s a little bit hidden. Is there a co-op that you just think is doing really cool stuff? I know there’s many, so it’s not to put anyone down, but just one that you’re like, I love that co-op.

There are a lot, and I could probably talk on this question for a very long time as well. But coming from the co-op council, one of my partners in crime I will say is Cabot Cooperative. Cabot Creamery up in Vermont, right now they are 900 farm families producing [inaudible 00:16:19], milk, dairy, all the good stuff. But they have a vested interest in youth education.

And as you can probably tell already, I also have a vested interest in youth education, and really highlighting how cooperatives are different. So they have been working on a training material over the last, I’d say more than a decade, that they actually send out to different organizations, troops like Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, school educators, about the cooperative difference.

And it’s Co-ops in the community is the name of it. And we partnered with them to do a new version of this. And so that’s in process right now to create this new booklet that they can earn a trinket, a pin if you will, the two Pine tree logo. But they can do this as an educational tool and they can have a lot of fun with it. So it’s got a lot of different fun things.

But Cabot, I’m getting off track, I see that. Cabot has been a huge partner nationally, not only at Coastal here, but at the Cooperative Council of North Carolina doing some amazing things. Not only just sending cheese, which I’m always happy to have cheese.

Always a good thing,

But really taking their opportunities, their talent to the next step to really educate why the cooperative is a better business model and why it’s such a sustainable business model.

I love that, because we end up talking to a lot of entrepreneurs interested in converting to a worker co-op, but one of the things we hear all the time is, why haven’t I heard of this? And what are the hardest things about the conversion?

And like Kerala highlighted, I would say it’s maybe even a bigger version of the challenges credit unions have getting the credit union difference out there of, I always tell people, listen, if we were in a Emilia-Romagna in Italy where something like 30% of all businesses are worker co-ops, yeah. And you would just, you’d be like, “Oh cool, you work for a worker co-op. So did my friend or my dad or my mom,” or whatever.

And so I think that lack of education in the US, whether it’s business schools or high schools or any context is such a big opportunity of how we can all grow together. And I wanted to ask because I think it’s really not off track, because it’s those partnerships that I think right now we have to search a little bit harder, but I just think the potential is infinite to be a little hyperbolic. It’s probably not quite infinite, but it’s enormous.

It is definitely enormous. And what’s funny on top of that is I go to other cooperatives and help with some of their onboarding and their training of new employees. And I have this little big wide world of co-ops that I talk about.

And one of the first things that I asked the group, and I did one last week for another credit union, was who has ever worked for a cooperative before? And I asked them to raise their hands, and they all stare at me blankly. Nobody raises their hands.

And I’m like, “Okay, so guess what? You all work for a cooperative right now, so let’s see your hands up.” So that’s where we’re at, you are working in the credit union world. Guess what? We’re a cooperative. Ha ha. Mind blown.

I have to say, I’m a little jealous hearing about you talk about the cooperative ecosystem in North Carolina, just because I’m sure there’s more that can be done and it definitely sounds like there’s more awareness to be raised. But it also just seems to have that state, your state has a really rich cooperative history.
We’re a remote company, but many of our team members are in Portland, Oregon. And despite the fact that Portland is alternative and takes pride in being weird, co-ops just are not thriving here. There’s not that many of them.

And I’m actually not quite sure why that is, but I think we’d have a lot to learn from North Carolina. And I’m just curious if you have any insights on why the ecosystem is more thriving in your state versus some other states where awareness just seems to be a lot lower.

Well, I have come to love this question. I wouldn’t have about 10 months ago when I took this job, but one of my colleagues here, Brandon, thank you, Brandon, is a self-proclaimed historian, I will say. And the historian of cooperatives and credit unions.
And so learning from him, he comes out, we do new employee trainings together, and he comes out and does the history part. So I’ve seen it a couple of times now, thankfully.

North Carolina was known as the valley of humility between two mountains of conceit back in the early 1900s. And we were the wealth gap. So we had issues that we could not solve with money. And what happens when you have that problem with maybe poverty level and problems is that the group comes together and they solve it with a cooperative. Cooperatives are the way.

So I think we got an early start, and that maybe being a double-edged sword, but that started with the cooperatives solving our problems in our communities and grew into all of the different industries that you see today.
We have a huge agricultural background. We also had the first African-American credit union, I believe in 1918, and that was the first worldwide African-American credit union.

And so just with all of those different moving parts, the rural electrification and these problem solvers, North Carolina has a huge deep history in the cooperative business model, and we just have kept it going.

That’s so great to hear. And speaking of keeping it going, I do think you’re far ahead of many other states, but I’m sure there’s more work that you see cut out for you in terms of promoting the cooperative model.

What would it look like if you were just successful in your role beyond your wildest expectations? What’s your long-term vision, both for Coastal Credit Union, but also the broader cooperative landscape?

Beyond my wildest expectation, you’ve heard of Mondragon in Spain, so let’s get down to it. I want 90 cooperatives here in my little bubble. I want to be competitive internally with cooperatives. It would be amazing. So if anybody listening has not heard of Mondragon in Spain, look it up. I don’t think I could do it justice in the time that we have, but I do know that it is over 90 co-ops in that small community.

I know that there’s over 80,000 people in that. I know that they have several, over 10, research and development cooperatives going. And I would love to have the opportunity to create cooperatives out of all of these different industries that are out there trying to make a living, trying to grow and be a profitable sole ownership or partnership. Cooperation is sustainable, and when you are there to solve a problem for everybody, everybody wins. So that would be amazing, if I could turn Raleigh, Durham ,the triangle area, into a Mondragon. I bet I could, given the resources.

I love it.

We’ll have you back on the podcast when you’ve done that. For those who don’t know much about Mondragon, it’s kind of a brain breaking organization that just defies a lot of the survival of the fittest is the best way models of capitalism. And there’s an amazing book if you’re feeling really nerdy, called Making Mondragon, which was one of the most useful books for me. And it’s basically a history book about how this incredible organization was built, but I digress. Deep breath. Let’s do some rapid fire questions, Emily.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

As a military spouse, I hung out of the back of a C130 while it was mid-flight.

Okay, you topped me. What is your favorite cause? You can’t say co-ops, you can. You can. You can say whatever you want.

I’d go with St. Jude.

Cool, awesome. And Emily, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Okay, I know this is tried and trued, but dress for the job that you want, not the job you have. And I know people listening can’t see me right now, but that’s why underneath my suit coat, I have my triathlon suit on because I’d love to be a triathlon sometimes. No, I’m kidding.
But really, I heard that advice as a young professional, and I would to this day say that was the absolute best advice to take to heart and to grow my career and my confidence in myself and my leadership style.

And meanwhile, I’m wearing a t-shirt as my office has gone from 75 degrees to 79 degrees during this podcast. But [inaudible 00:25:02].
You’ve been some pretty cool places. What’s a place you’d like to visit that you’ve never been to before?

Oh, I’d love to go to one of those water huts in Thailand. I don’t think it’s actually called a water hut, but that’s what it feels like in my head.

Yeah, iconic little thing out there on the water, yeah.

Yes, yes.

Sign me up.
All right. And then we added this as a bonus question. It’s an homage to my three-year-old, but Emily, what is your most embarrassing train story?

Oh, train story. Luckily I have one of those. Born and raised in the city of Chicago, and took public transportation all the time, very used to it. The rail to get to my parents’ house after college was called BNSF. And so marrying into the military, we moved to this small little town in Clovis, New Mexico. And got on the Google machine to figure out how I’m going to fly there and get to the town and all this good stuff, because driving was a hike.
So I found that from Lubbock to Clovis there was a BNSF, and I was like, oh, perfect, I could take the train. And so I couldn’t find where to buy tickets online. So I called. I called BNSF in Lubbock, Texas. And a guy answered, very weird answer, because he was just like, “Hello?” And I was like, “Hi there, I’d like to find out where to buy a ticket to ride from Amarillo or Lubbock to Clovis when I fly there.”

And he was like, “Please hold a minute, ma’am.” I’ve never been called a ma’am at that point in my life. And so put me on hold, came back on a couple seconds later, and he was like, “Can you repeat your question, ma’am.”

Again with the ma’am, geez. And so I repeated it, and I said, “I’d like to know where to buy a ticket to ride the rail to get to Clovis.”
All of this laughter erupted, so I must have been on speakerphone. Turns out this was not a passenger rail, it was a commercial rail. So I really made a fool out of myself on that one. Luckily nobody personally knew me, so it’s just my funny story to tell.

Well, I just Googled it. Yeah, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railway. I can say that’s different than the Chicago commuter train.
Oh, that’s awesome.

All right, well we’ll set the train stories aside. Thank you for sharing all that. Let’s do our final take. Is there anything you didn’t get to or anything you’d really like to reiterate for our audience?

I do want to say to all those credit union professionals out there, that cooperation among cooperatives is in our principles and it starts here at home with us.
So get cooperative, work with your local community cooperatives or other nonprofit organizations who have that mission, that value to serve their community. And it will start to happen from the grassroots and go up. But open up, be cooperative and work together.

Emily, thank you so much for joining us today.

Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I really had a good time.

Hey listeners, thanks so much for joining us for another episode of the Remarkable Credit Union. I hope you came away with some valuable insights around how credit unions can participate in a more cooperative and a more inclusive economy.

I’d say the conversation first really got me thinking about the lack of education around co-ops, and how that seems to be one reason so many people in the United States don’t have much awareness of the movement. I know it’s not a model that’s typically taught in most MBA programs or for business majors in college, but I loved the idea of this cooperative leadership camp that Emily mentioned for high school students.

It just seems like a really powerful and hands-on way to raise awareness about co-ops from an early age. And then thinking about other ways to raise awareness, Emily talked about how some of the most effective efforts are really grassroots efforts. Just making sure your members understand the power of credit unions, the power of member-owned financial institutions, and then finding ways to empower your members to spread the word for you.
I’ve always been curious. PixelSpoke, as we mentioned, is a young co-op, and we’re still very much learning how to co-op. And I’ve always been curious about what cooperation among cooperatives actually looks like in practice.

So I loved hearing Emily talk about how that can look like a huge event, like the philanthropy summit she helped organize, or it can take the form of smaller cross-industry partnerships. I love the example of how Coastal Credit Union has PTMs, or personal teller machines, at a local food co-op, and also how they make it really easy for food co-op members to join as members of the credit union.

It just seems increasingly clear to me that the more co-ops work together, the more we can raise the visibility of the movement. And Emily talked about Cabot Creamery just as a very large household name co-op that seems invested in youth education and also in partnering with other co-ops.

And lastly, I was just really curious to learn Emily’s take on why there are so many co-ops in North Carolina compared to other states.
And yes, I’m a little jealous, and it seems like part of the reason is just that the state got an early start. Emily talked about how in the early 1900s the state had a real wealth gap, and how people formed co-ops out of necessity as a way of combating poverty. Just seems to me that co-ops took root there in ways that they haven’t in other states, like my home state of Oregon, and how we could really look to North Carolina for blueprints or for more guidance on how to build a more cooperative economy.

Well, thanks again for joining us today for another great episode. And until then, I wish you the best of luck in making your credit union remarkable.

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