How Atlantic Central is moving from CSR to a values-based business strategy

As part of the credit union movement, Atlantic Central – the trade association for credit unions in Atlantic Canada – has always focused on more than just the bottom line. “The purpose of cooperatives is more about building communities than it is about making money. You have to be profitable to be sustainable, and the stronger you are as a business, the better you’re able to help build your community,” says Mike Leonard, CEO of Atlantic Central.

One of the ways Atlantic Central has helped build communities in the past has been through their cooperative social responsibility (CSR) program, which was mainly focused on charitable giving. Now they’re going a step further – integrating social and environmental impact directly into their business strategy so they can, as Leonard puts it, “live our cooperative values every day.”

“The more I read about what was happening in the world of CSR, the more I thought: it’s not what you do with the money you make, it’s how you make your money,” says Leonard.

This has led to a shift in how the company thinks about community building. Atlantic Central wants to ensure the cooperative values of fairness, honesty, trust and community mindedness are not only reflected in their corporate giving, but are also reflected throughout their business operations in a purposeful and strategic way.

For example, affordable housing is an urgent need in some of the communities that Atlantic credit unions serve. Though this is an area they’ve been involved with in the past, it wasn’t a strategic priority for the company. With the focus on living their values, the 2020 business plan for League Savings – their subsidiary company specializing in mortgage financing – includes an objective to explore lending opportunities for affordable housing projects. “Previously, that wouldn’t have been called out as a specific objective in our business plan. The fact that now we have it documented, and we made a commitment to our board, means it will be actioned,” says Leonard.

Similarly, the company has a new objective to create an investment policy that includes both negative and positive screening criteria: “We have a fairly substantial investment portfolio at Atlantic Central and we are very careful about where we invest our money. Intuitively, we know that we don’t want to invest in certain sectors and we don’t need a policy to tell us that. But at the same time, having a policy that explicitly says what you won’t do, and what you want to do more of, means it will be a priority to seek those things out – rather than just address them if they come our way.”

By living their values and formally incorporating social and environmental factors into their business strategy, Atlantic Central is ensuring the work they do and how they run their business benefits the communities Atlantic credit unions serve. “Now we can have more confidence that how we make our money will truly reflect our cooperative values,” says Leonard.

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