How to engage young people in co-operatives has been a question among Canadian co-operative leaders since they decided to launch the first co-operative youth education programs in Saskatchewan in the 1920s. As they realized then - the need to attract, retain, and develop young people in the co-operative sector is increasingly more important to the survival of the sector as leaders and members age. Challenges with engaging youth are still a common theme today, as noted in the #coops4dev Co-operatives and Young People: A Perfect Match? global research report released in March of 2021.
Irish credit unions too, wanted to ensure that the next generations of youth understand credit unions, and want to get involved and they started focusing on this a few decades ago.
How did Ireland Get So Good at Engaging Youth in Credit Unions?
In the early 1990s, credit unions in Ireland identified the need for a coordinated and strategic focus on engaging young people as the next members, staff, and leaders of their organizations. As early as 2000, the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) appointed a Youth Policy Task Force and developed youth policy which recommended appointing youth development officers at national, regional, and local levels. The ILCU appointed a National Youth Development Officer, and made recommendations to develop complementary materials, including school education packs for teachers and nationally branded youth products and services.
Since then, the ILCU and credit unions in Ireland have expanded how they engage youth. There has been extensive program development at local, regional, and national levels. Strategies and initiatives in Ireland are mostly focused on increasing and retaining young members at CUs, however there are some activities designed to increase participation of youth as volunteers or elected leaders.
Following are some examples of initiatives in Ireland at local, regional, and national levels.
- Primary School Saving Schemes and School Credit Unions;
- Secondary School Credit Unions, often run by students in the school and supervised by Youth Officers;
- Youth Officers;
- Work Experience Programmes;
- Youth Committees;
- Volunteer Development Programs, which may lead to involvement in the board of directors;
- Welcoming and encouraging young board members and committee members;
- Scholarships and Bursaries, especially for students going to 3rd level (post-secondary);
- Discounted student loan rates;
- Interview skills days;
- School visits to the CU boardroom;
- Social media promotions;
- Sponsorships, of youth groups, sports clubs, sports tournaments, etc.;
- Young People Awards; and
- School Presentations.
Regional and National Initiatives
- CU Schools Quiz (25,000 youth participants annually);
- Art Competition (30,000 youth participants annually);
- GR8 Savers Week;
- Student Loan Campaign;
- Music and Talent Competitions, for example, talent competitions aimed at teenagers, such as CU Factor;
- National Youth Staff Conference (about 200 participants);
- National Youth Committee;
- World Council of Credit Unions Young Credit Union People Programme (WYCUP); and
- Chapter / Regional Youth Officer Events and Education Opportunities.
Initiatives at the local and national levels include a wide range of ages. Some programming, like Savings Schemes or School CUs, may begin as young as age 4, while other programming focused on attracting board members includes up to age 35. Many of the initiatives are focused on teenagers, although it seems that the most popular initiatives, such as the national Art and Schools Quiz programs and School CUs are largely focused on younger children.
National level initiatives include both staff focused and youth focused activities. More national level initiatives are designed for CU staff than at the local level. The largest national initiatives, like the Schools Quiz and Art Competitions, are focused on youth and youth members. The popularity and longevity of some of the national-level youth-focused activities detailed above underscores how well these initiatives are doing.
This range of initiatives provides opportunity for youth to get involved in credit unions in many different ways, and from a one-off event or experience, to weekly engagement. While credit unions do offer some youth specific products or services, some of these initiatives are also not focused on selling products or services, but are focused instead on benefitting the youth – through education, experience, recognition, or building their skills.
Recommendations from Global Youth
From the wide range of initiatives in Ireland, it’s easy to see that there are many ways co-operatives can work to increase youth engagement. In the Co-operatives and Young People: A Perfect Match? report, the authors have included several recommendations for co-operatives that want to increase engagement with youth. Their recommendations include, but are not limited to:
- improve knowledge of co-operatives amongst young people
- boost the image of co-operatives and communicate it effectively
- develop genuine youth orientated structures within co-operatives
- build genuine democratic and inclusive cultures of co-operation
- promote decent work opportunities for young people through co-operatives
- facilitate co-operative entrepreneurship through adequate enabling environments
- build and strengthen constructive partnerships to achieve common objectives
As co-operatives and credit unions contemplate how to take action on any or all of these ideas, I hope the examples included in this blog post provide some inspiration for initiatives that may work for your co-op. I’ve also developed some top tips from my research and experience, to help co-operatives identify practical ways that can help increase youth engagement.
Victoria’s Top 4 Tips to Increase Youth Engagement in Credit Unions and Co-operatives
- Dedicate permanent human and financial resources to youth involvement. Many Irish credit unions (even small ones) have permanent Youth Officer staff positions, which provides a dedicated resource to focus on youth initiatives.
- Support opportunities for peer learning among staff focused on youth engagement.
- Offer a diversity of approaches and ways for youth to get involved. From weekly involvement in an ongoing activity, to youth products, and “one off” events, providing a variety of ways for youth to get involved at a level they are interested in.
- Get to know the youth in your community. While marketing to youth and offering youth focused products and services is an important part of the mix, investing in developing ongoing relationships with youth has huge benefits to member, staff, and elected leader attraction rates and overall positive perception of the CU in the community.
In conclusion, co-ops that want to be around in decades to come need to ensure that youth understand co-operatives (especially their co-operative), and want to get involved as members, staff, and elected leaders. This blog post provided many ideas of how Irish credit unions have achieved some success in engaging youth. Of course, co-operative youth education programming offered through provincial co-operative associations is another great way to educate youth about co-operatives, but this blog post was designed to provide ideas to help you think about initiatives that your own co-operative may be able to offer youth in your community. Let me know if you try some of these ideas out!
 Puchala and Heggie, 2009.
Credit Union Central of Canada, 2006.
 School credit unions are much more predominant in Ireland than in Canada. In Canada, VanCity Credit Union also has a well-established Youth Credit Union program, which they started in 1996, that currently involves over 25 schools.
 Many Irish CUs have Youth Officer (YO) or Chapter Youth Officer positions. Youth Officers implement local youth programming and often dedicate significant time to overseeing the School Savings Schemes and School CUs.
 Youth committees are a key feature of the Irish CU approach. The Youth Committee is generally tasked with developing strategies and initiatives to promote credit unions to their peers. The Committee gets a good grounding in how credit unions operate and can often keep their connection with the credit union and may serve on the credit union board when an opportunity arises.
#coops4dev (2021). Co-operatives and Young People: A Perfect Match? https://www.ica.coop/sites/default/files/news-item-attachments/coops4devyoungpeoplereport-267264990.pdf
Credit Union Central of Canada. (2006). Leading for the Future: A Strategy Document Developed by the National Young Leaders Task Force.
McCarthy, O., Briscoe, R., & Ward, M. (2000). Redesigning the Credit Union for the New Millennium: A Case Study of Ireland. Presented to the International Co-operative Alliance Research Committee Conference on Values and Enterprise for Co-operative Advantage, 1999 in Quebec, Canada. Published in The World of Co-operative Enterprise 2000, Plunkett Foundation, Oxford.
Morris, Victoria. (2016). Youth Involvement in Irish Credit Unions: A Case Study. Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives.
Puchala, Chassidy, and Heggie, Breeann. (2009). Co-operative Youth Education in Saskatchewan: Co-op Schools and the Saskatchewan Co-operative Youth Program: Eighty Years of Co-operation, Community and Leadership. Saskatchewan Co-operative Association and the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan.
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