World Council of Credit Unions traces its roots to the humble beginning of credit unions in 19th century Europe. Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch established the first credit unions in the 1850s in Germany to give those lacking access to financial services the opportunity to borrow from the savings pooled by themselves and their fellow members. Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen transported the financial cooperative concept to rural Germany a decade later.
The credit union idea expanded to North America early in the 20th century. Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the national association for credit unions in the United States, was founded in 1934. Twenty years later, Roy Bergengren, CUNA president and CEO, asked representatives to approve an overseas credit union assistance program that would expand the organization’s existing outreach to countries outside of North America.
The vote passed, and CUNA's World Extension Department came to life. Its purpose was to attack usury, one of the greatest abuses in developing countries, on a global scale. The department’s vision was to provide a simple, effective, yet potent weapon to improve people's economic situations.
In the 1950s, international credit union development programs emphasized community development. Programs had broad social, as well as economic objectives. Bergengren believed the department could work with several private and government funding agencies to foster credit unions as part of a wider program to create modern economies in less developed countries. The work of this office, in conjunction with the efforts of cooperative systems in Canada and Europe, led to the organization of credit unions in nearly all parts of the world over the next two decades.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. government has encouraged cooperative and credit union development through its foreign assistance legislation. The Foreign Assistance Act in 1961 was amended to encourage the development and use of cooperatives and credit unions in economically developing countries. The move was particularly important because of the formation of a new agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) within the State Department. USAID funded the majority of the department’s early credit union development activities. Between 1962 and 1970, credit union movements in the United States, Canada and Australia had generally started the systematic expansion of the international credit union movement. By the late 1960s, organizations from all over the world had joined to form the international credit union system that exists today.
World Council of Credit Unions was incorporated in the state of Wisconsin on Nov. 10, 1970, the result of a vote of confidence among national credit union associations throughout the world. It was a benchmark in history for the international movement and the culmination of a dream that had stirred enthusiasm in two generations of leaders. World Council officially began operations Jan. 1, 1971.
Today, World Council acts as the leading voice for advocacy and governance on behalf of the international credit union community. World Council continues to promote economic freedom and the sustainable growth of financial cooperatives across the globe through education, collaboration and community-based development projects.
World Council is governed by a board of directors that represents its member organizations. The organization and its subsidiaries are headquartered in Madison, Wis., in the United States. World Council also has a permanent office in Washington, D.C., and program offices worldwide.