Embracing the credit union difference: A closer look at where it shines

There has been a lot of conversation lately about the credit union difference, with some arguing that what we as credit unions hang our hat on, doesn’t stand out much from other mainstream financial institutions.

I refuse to agree with this rising chorus. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a credit union enthusiast (geek). My career has been in credit unions, and a long time ago I went all in on the rally cry of “people helping people”, “not for profit, not for charity, but for service”, and the commitment and dedication to serving people of modest means ethos.

Working within the credit union space provides me with constant reminders that many like-minded individuals believe credit unions can be distinctly different and better, in meaningful ways. If you find meaning in improving others’ quality of life and are willing to work hard for the greater good, the credit union space is where you belong.

For those seeking inspiration and a reminder of what it means to be a credit union (i.e.the credit union difference), several places exemplify this ethos:

The Credit Union Women Leadership Association (CUWLA)

For those of you who are female CEOs at credit unions with assets less than $300 million (and there are thousands of you), CUWLA is a great place to find the credit union spirit. This group of 300 or so (and growing fast) leaders is remarkable.

These leaders inspire me in so many ways. First, leaders of small credit unions wear so many hats and are pulled in so many different directions, it can be exhausting. Yet – it’s this group that I see engaged in the ranks of CUWLA. As busy as they are, they are finding time to collaborate with this sisterhood of leaders and engage in the work they believe in. So many in this group are running small credit unions with financial ratios strong enough to make a large asset CEO blush. They are winning and they know what they are fighting for. I see CUWLA and I see a movement, within a movement, a place where people of like minds can be authentic and support each other with less ego and more “people helping people”.

Behind closed doors and teller counters

The other places I see or hear about the credit union difference come in the form of stories about an employee going above and beyond with member service. It’s the MSR that takes time to listen and help a member find a solution to a problem. These newsworthy solutions are frequently life-changing. It’s the MSR that helped an unemployed member with a resume so they could apply for a job; the loan officer that spends extra time to find a viable way to a “yes” so they can get a dependable used car to get to work; or the financial counselor that coaches a member to become a first-time (or first generation) homeowner. For me, these are the behaviors that exemplify the credit union difference.

I see it most frequently behind closed doors with boards and management as they wrestle with finding the best strategies to remain relevant. It’s the directors and leaders who put mission and vision first and are willing to take on some risk to do the right things for their members. It’s more focused on how they can make their members’ lives better, in a meaningful way. It’s less how they operate to keep examiners happy.

It’s the credit union staff that are first to raise their hand to volunteer when there is a service opportunity in the community – even though they have already worked a full week and the weather forecast is inclement.

It’s the CEO or manager who is willing to take a stand for what they believe in, even after they have finished a grueling 10-day exam, have a quarter of their staff out, and trying to compete in an over-banked community – they are always there lifting and working hard to remove obstacles that are in the way of their team, their members and their communities.

It’s the member advocates. – those brave staff members who are willing to vocally advocate for “their” members with their colleagues. Advocating for loan approval or a remedy to help the member out of a tight spot. I admire their care and commitment to “people helping people”.

Why it matters

To maintain the credit union difference in the banking world of today, a strong and clear brand differentiator is essential. To my fellow credit union enthusiasts, your involvement can make a difference in your fulfillment, your team’s experience, your members’ lives, and your community.

The difference we make must be meaningful to stand out. I just don’t think that pricing, baseline service delivery, or technology will be meaningful enough to win a growing number of hearts and minds. It all comes down to “people helping people” in a meaningful way, and the credit union space thrives on this ethos.