Engaging with the community, of course, is one of the most important aspects of running a social profit organization. But this engagement naturally differs between organizations, and over time must evolve to respond to the needs of the times, especially in times of extraordinary crisis. Douglas Nelson is joined by Christine Bergeron, Vancity‘s Chief Member Services Officer. Douglas and Christine talk about how organizations can and should be engaging with the community they purport to serve. With the critical importance of community engagement in directing an organization, make sure you’re looking at every possible angle.
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Member Experience & Community Engagement With Christine Bergeron
In our show, we have a special guest. Our first representative of a corporate partner to the social profit sector, Christine Bergeron, Chief Member Services Officer with Vancity Credit Union. Welcome, Christine.
Thank you. It’s super great to be here.
Christine, I’m excited to have you on the show. A number of other guests have been on talking about how their organizations have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Vancity has been an important partner in the Vancouver community and likely beyond partnering with the City of Vancouver, the United Way Lower Mainland and the Vancouver Foundation for a coordinated response. I’m interested in the perspective that Vancity has had in joining that partnership. Tell us a little bit about, how that partnership came about and why you joined it?
It started with the Vancouver Foundation reaching out and we knew they’re already a large-scale funder with a wide network and aligned with a lot of the work that we do. We had seen through our membership and business numbers, the impacts that COVID we’re going to have in the community and specifically in the nonprofit charitable sector. It’s an area that we know quite well. We realized that in those discussions that they’d be ready to roll out quite quickly and we wanted to support that. It was a fairly easy decision in that respect.
It certainly has been a successful effort. My understanding is that, there’s been about $10 million allocated to the response. More than $6.3 million has already been put out to the community, with another $3.7 million to go out in the next couple of weeks. What has it been like for Vancity who has a commitment to the sector as you mentioned to be on the ground in response to this with those partners?
For us, it’s always the broad picture. This partnership, for sure, was one that we’re quite proud of. We think there’s been a great response. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of demand but then also a great response from the community. We always put it in the broader context of wanting to put people first in general and as the core of our business model. We’ve been thinking about all of those aspects of, how do we respond? This was one additional piece focusing on that sector. We thought it would be one we could support in addition to the other work. We have seen a lot of demand from our members, our business members, and others in response to COVID and those impacts as well.Core business models in practically every sector are being flipped on their heads. Click To Tweet
Vancity is always engaged in the community. What have you seen as the most acute change or the most obvious change in what the community needs are as a result of the pandemic?
For a long time, many of our team members are deeply engaged in their work. We have seen hundreds and hundreds of different responses from community partners. We’ve heard from our business members, from individual members in terms of their needs and the gaps. I don’t know that I’d say I haven’t seen one particular theme. You’ve got anything from service delivery models having to change and core business models being flipped on their heads to the elements like volunteers. Having fewer volunteers available and how do we think about that? We’ve done some work with Think Local. We’ve done work with Farmers Market trying to help the ecosystem. It is the way we approach it. It’s how we approached it prior to the COVID pandemic. I expect how we will continue to because that’s deeply ingrained. I’m not sure I’d say that there’s one specific element, but we’ve continued to stay in touch to try to understand the gaps that our community partners are facing. The gaps that end up reflecting on our broader membership and seeing what we can do? What solutions can we bring forward to support that?
It is a difficult time and there is no shortage of need in the community as there was even before the pandemic. In the context of the partnership with Vancouver Foundation, the City of Vancouver and the United Way of the Lower Mainland, what has been Vancity’s role in activating that partnership?
We’ve wanted to ensure awareness and having additional funders come to the table and then various team members have spent a significant time reviewing different applications as well. We have a team here that’s quite averse in granting in addition to the talented group at the Vancouver Foundation. We’ve supported it the best that we can through those different means.
You mentioned you’re able to respond to this because it was an extension of your ongoing work. In working with your team, was there a moment where you recognize we need to do something different or we need to do more of what we’re already doing?
We realized almost immediately that the scale of what was hitting in those first few days, many people remember that was going to be larger than what we’ve seen. We activated right away. What that meant for us was reactivating a lot of response tools that we had in our business model for quite a long time. We had done that during the financial crisis and then what we quickly and quite decisively realized was we needed some additional actions in this case and that the impacts would likely be larger and broader. For example, we’ve always had things like having the option to have three months deferral of payments on a mortgage or loan for financial hardship. We extended that to six months.
We responded by cutting fees right away. We knew that people would then need to be doing more online. We wanted to ensure that we were supporting that broadly. We started to see the effects again through deep conversations with all of our partners, community members, business members, and retail on what were these other elements that we could start thinking about and solving for? One of those was the work with the Vancouver Foundation through the community response fund. Some other pieces that we launched were we had a Unity Term Deposit where we wanted to raise money for funding to then put back into a community. We did that and raised $200 million that we’re dispersing back out through new programs.
We saw that there were gaps in a couple of places, but specifically, where we started was on the gaps for small businesses are looking to pivot their business model right in response to COVID. Whether that was directly taking a production line that was probably the more obvious type for beer and then switching onto hand sanitizer or something like that. There’s a lot of businesses that needed to switch their model for online and for delivery and different types of delivery models. Maybe they needed extra money or needed some type of funding to allow them to continue to grow. That was a gap that we’d heard from through the community. That was something that we stood up after we had raised funds through the Unity Term Deposit.
Another one was self-employed. I’m certain that you and others would have heard this quite a bit as well from the community. The government put in a lot of programs and they’ve adjusted them quite a bit over the following weeks. In the beginning, many of our self-employed members since I don’t quite fit any of these programs or it’s not sufficient. We stood up the Unity Bridge Loan, which again was meant specifically to help offset some of the issues with those, whether that’s a massage therapist as an example or those types where they’re self-employed. The government options were not sufficient. They weren’t captured under the small business program that the government put out because they don’t have salaries per se. It’s a self-employed type of situation.
We looked at all of these things and wanted to act immediately and knew that we needed to do this in a way we do everything, which is again, keeping people at the center. As a values-based FI, thinking through our long history and coming back to that each time with any of our solutions. It is what we do. For example, we already give back 30% of our profits annually to the community and members. We wanted to shift our focus to the specific needs of COVID and we knew that was going to be important. When we heard of the gaps, we started to do our best we’re one institution, but to do as much as we could to start filling those. Whether that’s through for the charitable sector, through the community response fund, whether that was for small businesses, through these new product solutions to helping some of our members think through new service delivery models as well.
That deep connection to the community and the business community and as well as the charitable space, it gives you a unique perspective on how organizations are responding. How have your partners responded to these efforts that you outlined?
We’ve had a great response. Some of that indicates the need. We always wish we could do even more and we can continue to try to innovate and come up with additional solutions. We’ve had a great response from our members. They’re appreciative of our work. We saw our call center volumes more than double the number of deferrals and trying our best to have conversations with each and every individual to work through their situation because they’re all unique. When we lowered our credit card interest rates to 0%, we had a large response to that. When you think of the ballistic piece of all of the response, people understood that we were coming out and we had built up a lot of reserves over the years as other financial institutions have. We’re doing everything we could to dig into that and put them back out where they could do the most good. In our view, that’s inputting that out with individuals in the community, small, medium-sized businesses, not for profits, social enterprises that operate here in our local economies.Figure out how quickly you can mobilize people to work with you to move forward. Click To Tweet
Thinking about social profit or the charitable sector, many of them do their banking through you and manage their finances through Vancity. You have deep relationships with a number of organizations, as you mentioned. From your perspective, what are the hallmarks of organizations that are managing to find their way through this pandemic?
What we’ve seen is strong leadership, where they continue to put people at the center of their response. Innovative, creative thinkers and this would probably be the case in any dynamic or any negative situation, but coming at it from, “How do we rethink this? How can we mobilize others to work with us to move that forward?” We’ve seen a ton of innovation, energy, and a real enthusiasm by community leaders across the board who are looking to ensure that their organizations continue to thrive.
What advice would you give to members of boards or members of leadership teams of some of these social profit organizations that are struggling to find their way forward or struggling to stay focused on their mission in the midst of the pandemic?
The advice for larger organizations is a little bit different than some of the smaller social enterprises who perhaps have lost the vast majority of their income as an example. With the larger ones, if you’re looking at your response overall our success. Many where we see successes where it’s again, with a people-centered approach that means different things depending on your business. With smaller ones, I don’t have any silver bullet. It’s a difficult time for a lot of leaders and business owners. We’ve tried from our perspective to help people, it includes our members, but it’s not only because it’s available to navigate a little bit the landscape of solutions and options. We did put together a community resource page because what we were hearing in the market and from our members and community partners was there’s much information.
People didn’t know how to think about it, what to look for and how to approach us? We tried to do our best to put that together. We also tried to help create a bit of a decision tree. How do you know which government programs may or may not fit for you and how do you navigate that? People are already quite stressed, emotionally they’re trying to solve and save a business, etc. How do you help people understand where they can get support? Always being aware of those supports and then trying to dig through each one. We’ve seen organizations be successful that way. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s trying to think through, “What has made us successful? How do we have to shift that to continue as we look forward?”
It’s true and probably every endeavor, but particularly in the social profit that most silver bullets are fired from guns made of preparation and hard work. Working with the Vancouver Foundation and the United Way of the Lower Mainland and the City, you’ve brought together four organizations that the social profit or charitable sector in the Lower Mainland turns to for support on any given day. By bringing your efforts together, what has the feedback been from organizations knowing that there’s one place that they can come to for that support?
I haven’t directly heard much of that feedback. I expect that our team members have but we know that in general, being able to go to one location is always clearly simpler than going to various. Based on previous experience, I would expect that’s been helpful.
The response has been impressive given the number of resources that have been made available for the response fund and in such a short period of time. As you mentioned that the need is great. How do you balance or how does Vancity look at with much that you do-do the gap between what you’re able to do and where the need is? How do you find that balance or find comfort in that gap?
It’s a gap that we’ve generally seen even prior to COVID. There’s often a gap between how much we would like to do in our actual resources. We do the most and the best that we can. We do that we partner as much as we can and we try to build through the ecosystem support. For example, it wouldn’t solely be that we grant to one organization and that we’re their only source. We try to ensure that we’re building capacity and that we have been for years because we know that we can’t be the only one to fill up the gap, it’s not trying to do that. It’s trying to build that over the years to build additional capacity and help people think through some variations of their business model. How else can you think about different income streams and all of that type of work? On an individual basis, from my lens, seeing the need coming in and reading many comments from many members and small business owners and wishing you could solve for each single piece. Sometimes that’s a bit overwhelming because we can’t. We do the best that we can and we will continue to do that.
I want to pick up on something you said. You talked about building the ecosystem building capacity over time. One of the real commonalities that we’ve heard through our work here at The Discovery Group with clients and others in the sector across the country has been those organizations, particularly granting agencies that have been able to respond are ones that have deep roots in the community. There aren’t many examples we can point to of organizations starting in the middle of March 2020 and being able to have an effective impact on the community. That a lot of the most generous, most effective responses are the product of multi-year, many year investments in community and investment in that partnership. How would you say that Vancity’s investment in those types of partnerships has prepared your organization to help others respond to this pandemic?
First it helped us do in terms of then help others is we knew what we needed to do to respond in terms of our business model, our values-based and banking model and what’s the best thing for people, our members, and our community. It’s huge props to all of our team members who do this work, that understand the networks and has helped people, organizations to build that capacity. It creates trust over time. It’s always been in order to truly support those ecosystems and it’s not been about maximizing our profit. It’s not our model. When we go back, there is a crisis and there is this situation we have now, we have those levels of trust with organizations. We have our business model intact, which is not trying to maximize profit. I don’t know if it’s easier, but it’s clear as to what decisions we need to make and we hope, that’s our intent to bring more solutions forward and to support the community in the best way that we can.
It’s a more familiar emotion if it’s something you’ve been doing for a lot of time and for a long time. I was speaking to someone who was making the point that for everyone who wanted the social profit sector to be more efficient. Focus only on meeting the immediate needs of now, they need to understand that the ability for the whole sector to respond to this pandemic is because of these long-term relationships. These investments in things that may not appear efficient in the day, but build capacity over time. That sounds similar to the business model that you’re describing at Vancity.You need to respond right in terms of your business model, values base, and banking model. Click To Tweet
I would say so, yes. The equivalent for us is knowing our members, knowing their needs, and responding to those with a long-term view. We don’t have quarterly reporting the way larger public companies do. We do take that long-term view and we do look at for giving back our 30% of our profits every year, then we can think about how we do that. It is embedded in how we do our work.
As we look forward to the opening up of our communities and our economies, what are you most looking forward to from your perspective at Vancity as it relates to the work you do in the community?
I personally miss a face-to-face connection. I think many people do and although virtual has its place, I will look forward to that. It’s a bit easier anyway to brainstorm and sometimes think with the team that way but I think that’s still some time away.
Have you been looking after yourself during the last couple of months as you’re leading a big team? You’ve got an important role. It must be difficult to balance everything. How are you looking after yourself?
Balance is not necessarily the right term, but for me, there are always two key grounding elements. It’s family and health, which are hard to negate. They’re core, but it’s making sure that those remain at the top. Whether that’s combining them as much as possible, like bike rides, hikes, and fresh air, not only how I decompress, it’s also when I’m most creative. It could also be dance parties with the kids and family and things like that. All of that helps keep some laughter in all of it. Being there for the teams, which there is an element of being pretty energized by the work our teams have done. I’m super proud of all the work and then seeing the community respond broadly despite the need. There’s a lot of energy in trying to come together. Between all of that, I stayed good in that sense.
Christine, there’s a couple of things that you share that I want to come back to as we’re wrapping up. The first was the concept of building the ecosystem and building capacity over time. How important that’s been to Vancity’s response and the response for your social profit partners during the pandemic? The second was something you said right off the top, which is that, “Strong leadership is about putting people at the center of your perspective and your actions.” As a final comment, could you say a little bit more about what that means for you personally, that putting people at the center of your perspective and actions?
You always have constraints and you always have a “tradeoffs” that people talk about. You make less money doing it or you need more resources. It tends to end up being more about the bottom line. For me, it’s what is the right thing to do for people and then that can be changed between our members. Sometimes as also then employees and staff. They’re core to everything that we do. If you think of it from membership and community, we know that our members are only going to prosper if the community around them is strong and resilient. Our business model is to help build a healthier community, a more resilient one. You can’t do that without having people at the center. It is then about not trying to maximize our profit. It’s about making enough and it’s about doing everything we can to support people who are in our community that are our members and own us. That is our role as a credit union.
That perspective on leadership and the power of organizations to make a difference in the community is essential for everyone reading this blog or doing work in the social profit world these days. Thank you very much for sharing it and for being on the show.
Thanks for having me.
- Vancity Credit Union
- United Way Lower Mainland
- Vancouver Foundation
About Christine Bergeron
As the Chief Member Services Officer, leading the Member Experience & Community Engagement division, Christine leads the lines of business and Vancity’s community engagement work, serving Vancity’s more than half a million individual, business and not-for-profit members’ financial, small business, commercial and wealth management needs.
Christine joined Vancity in 2011 to assist in building out its impact investing offering working to identify companies that operate responsibly while maximizing value for stakeholders. She has held several leadership roles since that time including Vice President of Community Business and Vice President of Impact Investing, Wealth Management and Community Real Estate.
She has spent over two decades working with entrepreneurs, financing innovative companies and building financial firms – all focused within the cleantech, sustainability and impact investing sectors. As a founding team member and Vice President of Chrysalix Energy, an early stage venture capital firm, she was part of a team that pioneered “cleantech” investing. She then co-founded a successful alternative asset management firm furthering her expertise in sustainability financing.
Christine’s achievements in fostering community impact, social justice and environmental sustainability earned her accolades from Business in Vancouver magazine, which included her in its 2007 “Top 40 Under 40” list. In 2012, the Association of Women in Finance gave her the Rising Star award, and last year the 2017 Clean50 awards recognized her for her dedication to sustainability.
She applies her professional passion, her discipline and principles to causes outside of Vancity as well. For five years, she volunteered for a non-profit group focused on pulling people out of poverty through investments in energy throughout the developing world. Christine is Chair of the Women’s Enterprise Centre; she lectures on finance and impact investing at various universities, is a mentor to young women, an advisor to various social enterprises and has contributed her time to various community organizations over the years. She is also a board member with Aviso Wealth.
She earned a B.A. in sociology from the University of Guelph, then completed her MBA in Strategic Management at UBC’s Sauder School of Business in 2002. She also holds her CIM designation.
Christine is a life long learner who constantly strives to improve. In her spare time, she can be found enjoying all that Vancouver has to offer along with her husband and two children. Christine is passionate about education, innovation and empowering people to be—and do—their best.