Vancity Pride
Vancity employees at the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2018

The story behind Vancity’s coming out


This post is written by Thomas Kevin Dolan, a consultant who supported Vancity’s work building a relationship with the LGBTQIA2S+ community from 2002 to 2011. 

A note on terminology: this post describes events that took place in the early 2000s, when “gay and lesbian” was a generally accepted term. We now use the more inclusive acronym LGBTQIA2S+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirited, plus) to represent this diverse community.

One of Vancity’s proud “firsts” is being the first Canadian financial institution to market to the gay and lesbian community through mainstream advertising back in 2002.

Almost two decades later, this may not seem like a big a deal. But at the time, it was significant.

That first awkward moment

It was 2001 when the person who was then Vancity’s Corporate Secretary called me and asked if I would be open to a 20-minute phone conversation with their then CEO.

He had been invited to become a member of a Campaign Fundraising Cabinet, raising money for the Dr. Peter AIDS Centre, and wanted to tap into my fundraising experience.

Seventeen minutes into the conversation, Vancity’s then CEO shared that he really appreciated my insight, and then both of us sat in this awkward moment of silence.

The silence was broken by this question from him: “Do you think Vancity has the capability of partnering with Vancouver’s gay and lesbian community?”

Later I would discover that one of the CEO’s goals, supported by the Board of Directors, was to create a relationship with the community – one that went beyond sponsorship to more meaningful recognition and inclusion.

The work begins

A few short months later, in 2002, I sat across from Vancity’s Senior Vice President of Marketing. That morning, Vancity’s work to connect with the local gay and lesbian community began. As a consultant for Vancity, my responsibility was to recommend, guide and inform this work.

The point of the initiative was simple. Vancity wanted the gay and lesbian community to know that it intended to be their financial institution of choice. The spirit of this approach, at a time when many questioned aligning with the gay and lesbian community, was to do the right thing.

A unique approach

Through our research, the community told us that to “win” their hearts and minds and their business, Vancity needed to be seen as taking the same risk as they did coming out to their family and friends.

Also, it felt imperative that the campaign do something that few companies paid any attention to – feature real members or customers.

Instead of stock photos of models typically used for advertising, Vancity used real members who were also members of Vancouver’s vibrant gay and lesbian community. The community would be able to see itself reflected in the marketing creative. This was a first.

Vancity ad

The initiative also focused on sponsoring what the community cherished most. So Vancouver Pride, Out On Screen Queer Film Festival, The Gay and Lesbian Centre (known now as Qmunity), Surrey Pride, International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and many other smaller, community-based initiatives became sponsorship partners with Vancity.

It was difficult to measure the statistical results of the campaign, unless people self declared their sexuality when they joined Vancity. Vancity estimated that its gay and lesbian membership base prior to the campaign launch was most likely around 3%.

A few years into this work that figure grew to 7%, more than doubling the members identified as belonging to the gay and lesbian community. Membership growth soared because of the campaign, which validated that this approach was really connecting with the community.

Standing our ground

The premise of the campaign was for Vancity to communicate to the gay and lesbian community that it was a financial institution that valued all partnerships.

Unfortunately, this message wasn’t well received by everyone.

Some members left the credit union as a result.

Then, a year after the campaigned launched, Vancouver’s Roman Catholic archdiocese pulled a long-standing junior credit union program from its schools that Vancity helped run.

Things escalated from there, as the media stories brought increased attention to the issue. Shortly after the story appeared in the news, Vancity received eight bomb threats. Employees had to be evacuated several times from the Main Street headquarters and the Fraser Street branch.

According to the Vancouver Sun: “Although it’s not clear the bomb threats were made as a result of the controversy, police are suspicious because they occurred just after The Sun reported the church’s decision.” (“Intolerance marks furore over church, credit union”, October 2, 2003).

While Vancity took the situation seriously and worked hard to protect its employees, the threats weren’t enough to sway the commitment of the credit union. If anything, it made them more determined.

Vancity’s response to all the negativity was, “We are committed to serving another vibrant Vancouver community and we believe we’re doing the right thing.”

The work I did with Vancity from 2001 to 2011 was groundbreaking. Vancity became the first financial institution in North America to “come out” in mainstream media as being a proud partner with the community. It was a sentiment that sealed the deal for a community that thirsted to be seen.

The first ad, which ran in the Vancouver Sun, featured a gay couple who were members and it stated:

“At Vancity, we will always value the rights and dignity that all people deserve. And isn’t that that kind of partnership you want with the people you bank with?”

Still fighting

2019 marked 50 years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada. It was a landmark decision that began a process of legal reforms recognizing the rights of LGBTQAI2S+ Canadians as a powerful way to recognize Canada’s profound belief in equality and inclusion.

To celebrate this milestone, the Canadian Mint released the Equality Coin, designed by Vancouver artist Joe Average. The image depicts two intertwined faces on the coin and is intended to reflect gender fluidity and the spectrum of genders.

Joe Average coin

Joe Average was the Honourary Marshal of its entry in the Vancouver Pride Parade on Sunday, August 4, 2019. Joe is a well-known advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBTQIA2S+ rights.

The theme of 2019’s parade was 50 Years & Still Fighting (#50YearsStrong), which acknowledges the courage the community has summoned in its drive to be treated as equals in Canadian society. It also acknowledges that the fight’s not over.

As a values-based financial institution, Vancity is committed keep fighting and to another 50 years of strong support.

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