What makes credit unions credit unions?
They're at it again: The bankers' strong-arm efforts to force credit unions onto a "level playing field" make it tempting to defend ourselves with elaborate explanations of why credit unions are unique. But from where I stand, it seems fairly simple: what makes credit unions credit unions is our member-ownership structure. Unlike other sectors of the industry, credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives. Our purpose continues to be to meet the financial service needs of the members who are also our owners.
The Core of Credit Unions
Some of our detractors like to argue that credit unions have strayed from their people-helping-people mission because of expanded fields of membership. Others say growth in the scope of services has caused us to lose our way. And a few even say we've become too sophisticated, relying on complex analytical systems and professional staff to run our organizations.
But doesn't that miss the point? The number of members being served, the breadth of product offerings, and the level of systems and staff expertise have nothing to do with credit unions' core philosophy. The same principles of mutual self-help that marked credit unions in the early days have remained constant. The same spirit of working together to make a difference in people's financial well-being still prevails. And, most importantly, the same member-focused perspective continues at the heart of all that credit unions do.
I firmly believe that offering affordable financial services helps build a healthy, thriving community, and no other sector of the industry has come close to doing it as well as credit unions. How can that be? Because our members are our owners, and they have the ultimate say in credit union policy. That's in stark contrast to other institutions, whose focus is on stockholders - a necessity in for-profit companies.
It's true that credit unions' size and number of members have grown. Our operating and management techniques have improved over time. And we have become much better at handling members' needs than in the "old days." That is as it should be. The financial services industry has evolved to accommodate consumers' changing needs, and growing expectations. And credit unions have been right there, embracing new ways to meet them. Some new ways at Southeast Corporate have included corpSafe Internet-based securities safekeeping, online ordering of coin and currency, computerized ALM modeling products, and many additional investment service products (expanded investment products are profiled inside).
What has made credit unions successful is what still drives us today: a governing structure that ensures "one member, one vote," and a stance that puts member/owners ahead of profit. By continuing to work together and express our "one voice" loudly, consistently and with persistence we will ensure the continued success of the credit union movement.
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