Credit unions only provide services to their members and they are legally restricted as to whom they can offer services by their bond of membership. Changing economic conditions and regulatory interpretations have led to broadening fields of membership and this has created a widening role for credit unions in providing financial services.

Credit unions are mutual organizations. In most cases, their only source of capital are member shares and retained earnings; they do not normally issue stock or other securities. They are governed by their members and voting is on the basis of one vote per person regardless of how much a member has deposited with the credit union. Credit union members own the credit union, use its services and may, through volunteer labor, constitute part of its administration. The Board of Directors is elected from the membership and directors are unpaid. Credit unions view themselves as organized to meet the needs of their members. Consequently, what they maximize is generally more complex than in the case of shareholder-owned for-profit firms.

Credit union culture is one of cooperative behavior. Credit unions view themselves as part of a movement rather than an industry; they see themselves as an alternative from the traditional suppliers of financial services. Most credit unions are part of the Credit Union System that consists of organizations at the local, provincial, and national levels.