Acting for the member- Who says they do it, why and if they really do

Many groups – from Boards to staffs and regulators – say they act “for the member.” But they are really only making educated guesses. The only group knowing member needs and wants is the group of members themselves. Everyone occasionally has to see through their own motivations and remember this.


You’ve heard it and read it before: “It’s all about the member.” Meaning that credit unions exist for member benefit, period – and that credit union people have to continuously keep this in mind.

The slogan gets pretty good play in the credit union world. We like to think we had much to do with starting and spreading it. Back in 1992 when the Clinton For President campaign was trying to upset then sitting-President Bush, their informal slogan was “It’s the economy, stupid.” We started mimicking that with “It’s the member, stupid,” meaning that in the credit union world, all acts have to be for the benefit of the members.
We still believe in the purity and sanctity of this principle. Credit unions have to maintain all their focus on member benefit. It they do, they’ll prosper; if they don’t they’ll whither.

Slogans Can Be Easy

But as with any sort of organizational slogan or guide, it’s repeated and referred to more than adhered to. It’s adopted by groups more than followed. It can be mouthed but without much dedication; it can even serve to mask divergent intentions.

People prefer to deal in their own comfort zones. Boards of Directors, senior management teams, and staff are three groups all of whom have their particular comfort zones and all of whom have their own versions of what they mean when they say “It’s for the members.” Whatever any of these groups wants to pursue, whatever “good” they want to do for the credit union, they are likely to say what they are doing is “for the good of the member.” This is especially true if they are challenged; they fall back on their motive – “acting for the good of the member.”

In fact, no one really knows what is best for the member – and we are the first to admit it. Only the members really know what is best for them, and they tend not to put their needs and wants into words. Rather, they “vote with their feet.”

Knowing Where The “Smarts” Are

Boards, senior management and staff can offer products, make adjustments to service and the like, but what they are doing is hardly more than making educated guesses. They have to wait to see how the members are going to react. If the members stick with the credit union, if they bring in their own family members and their friends, then the credit union has been acting in their benefit. If they are not bringing in their family members and friends, and if they are shifting their financial activity elsewhere or leaving the credit union entirely then clearly they believe the credit union is acting less hard for their benefit than an alternative.

The American people are by and large an intelligent people. They also like to be loyal and tolerant. They are likely to see an institution such as a credit union through a storm or even a couple of cycles, but if they see that over the long haul they are not getting their value’s worth in one place they will go where they believe they can. They’ll vote with their feet.

All of us need to remember that the “smartest” people in the credit union are the members. They may or may not on average have more academic degrees than people on the Board, management team and staff, but certainly they are the smartest in determining what is in their own best interests. They know it when they see it, and they know it across the street if that is where they see it. Everyone else just makes educated guesses, and when groups in positions of responsibility say they are acting “in the member interest,” what they are really saying is that they are offering up a mask for their own motivations.

We are right to be skeptical of groups, from Boards to regulators. It is right to not entirely trust these groups. But it is right to trust one group: Trust the members. The members know every time what they want. The other groups can miss, and often do; the members never miss.




Aug. 2, 2004


  • well said
  • "It IS the member" says it all... BUT if we are going to walk like a duck, quack like a duck, swim like a duck THEN we sure as hell better BE A DUCK when it comes to living the integrity and commitment to be a duck when it comes to core member VALUE and be in-sync with what ducks think is tolerable limits for compensation and community investment. Sharon Conser, Director Portland Teacher's Credit Union
  • So, Coach Callahan & Bucky, why didn't you propose any solutions to the challenge of using subjective optinions on what the members want? "It's in the numbers, stupid!" ;) The quantifiable results of scientifically based member surveys or geocoding member demographic information (which ought to be stored in your data system) are both cost effective, highly objective and easy to understand ways of defining that the members want. Nope, I didn't learn this in examiner school when I worked for you at NCUA. I learned it by listening carefully to paid, professional CU staff and reading, reading, and more reading everything I could find about credit unions outside of the NCUA manuals, letters to CUs & GC opinions. I wish the NCUA directives to directors started out with this sentence: "Remember there is no I in Member." Carolyn Warden, CCUE