The credit union movement was founded on the principle of service.
We’ve all heard the phrases:
- Not for profit, not for charity, but for service.
- People helping people.
- The real job of a credit union is to prove, in modest measure, the practicality of the brotherhood of man.
Credit union history teaches us that the ideal of service means more than better rates, lower fees, and friendly service. My experience as a credit union employee for more than 25 years, and as a strategic consultant for past seven years, has taught me that credit union service was founded on a little bit more.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Like the fictional world depicted in Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” the world around us is full of hope and despair. It’s a time of the haves and the have-nots; it’s a time of peace and a time of war; it’s a time of prosperity and it’s a time of poverty. While times and the world have changed drastically since the beginning of the credit union movement, the need for meaningful service is higher than ever. There are a lot of people who need financial help today, and that involves more than a lower interest rate, a smile, and a cool mobile app. They need you.
Most of us (but not all) get it
I talk to a very diverse group of credit union people every single day. It’s what I do. Many of these conversations are focused on why their credit union exists, what makes their credit union uniquely stand out, and how they can remain relevant in a changing world. The most successful conversations (and strategies) are centered on a deeper definition of service. By deeper, I mean these credit union leaders will tell you that they exist to help people who are experiencing financial challenges. They do this by truly listening, then offering good financial advice, flexible products (and underwriting), and second chances. Their teams trip over each other trying to find ways to help those members experiencing the greatest need. They are less judgmental of people and the financial challenges they are faced with, they have empathy, and they spend more time looking at situations from the member’s perspective. I get to work with a host of credit unions strongly engaged in their local communities, taking on tough community and consumer challenges. These leaders are investing (financially and in Human Resources) to help overlooked consumers attain affordable housing, reliable transportation, and micro small-business loans to help create wealth and lift families out of poverty. Ask these credit union folks and they will tell you they have a very strong and clear cause, and it resonates with their people and the communities they serve.
They love to share amazing stories of how they helped members through a difficult challenge. Their measurement of success is deeper than earnings, capital, and growth. Examples of what they measure and track include credit migration scores to see how borrowers who had less than prime credit at the time of the loan have improved their overall credit score over time; the number of jobs created (through new micro-business lending); first-time account holders (previously unbanked); the number of first-time homeowners; and the number of consumers they helped achieve citizenship. This list isn’t all encompassing, but it provides good examples of a deeper level of service and impact.
I love to talk to these CU people. Whether it’s their boards, management or their staff, these people light up whenever they get the opportunity to tell you about the special services they provide to their membership and their communities. And their stories aren’t one-offs; they happen frequently, and are common themes between branches.
Why it matters
There are a lot of people and communities struggling today. If you take a moment to look closely around you, you will find people who need you. Sick family members, discouraged friends, stressed-out coworkers, and struggling credit-union members. They need someone to notice and help them. Your help – whether it’s a word of comfort or encouragement, removing an obstacle, financial help, advice, or just active listening – could have a meaningful, positive impact. Today, you could make a meaningful difference in someone’s life.
From a personal perspective, giving service gives us a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment. I believe there is a difference between fulfillment and happiness. Fulfillment is more important to me, as it’s deeper and more long-lasting than happiness. I’m happy when I get to go fly fishing, but that happiness isn’t long-lasting. However, the fulfillment I receive from helping someone is deeper: I become a better person, and it is long-lasting. We all want to be happier, but I would recommend pursuing those things that provide greater fulfillment and personal growth.
From a credit union’s perspective, the more our people help one another, our members and our communities at large, the greater the fulfillment for the individual and the culture. This will lead to a stronger brand, and greater growth and financial results. I believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast: greater growth and financial success will follow a stronger credit union service culture. A helpful culture will make us employers of choice, and we will attract community partners that share our values and purpose.
From a credit union movement’s perspective, doubling down on our legacy of selfless service is all that will separate us from the rest of the mainstream financial services. I know that our cooperative structure is different, but I honestly don’t think it matters much to consumers en masse. If I’m like most average consumers, I don’t think the world needs more for-profit banks or “bank light” credit unions. There are plenty available to take care of those who are in good financial shape. My research and experience with best-practice community development credit unions has taught me that there is high need for not-for-profit credit unions that will help people with financial challenges and address real challenges in the communities they serve. I also know that these service models are sustainable, and among the fastest-growing and most profitable. It’s true, credit unions can do very well by doing good.
If you haven’t yet done so today, I encourage you to take a moment, look around you, identify someone in need, and go make a positive difference. If you are in leadership, I ask you to take an extra moment to consider your membership and the communities you serve. Who needs your help the most, and how can you marshal the resources needed to make a remarkable difference? Now, get after it.