International travel is the perfect medicine for curing cultural tunnel vision. So how can credit unions apply that type of experience to the professional and personal lives of their employees?
Thanks to the growing prevalence of international employee exchanges, it’s not as difficult as it sounds.
Nearly 87% of credit unions worldwide operate outside of North America, according to 2013 data from the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU).
Although these overseas cooperatives look to the United States for operational inspiration, domestic institutions have just as much to gain by flipping that arrangement on its head, says Terry McCoy, senior training specialist for Amplify Federal Credit Union ($677M, Austin, TX).
In early 2014, McCoy and marketing specialist Taylor Richardson participated in an on-site, two-week exchange with Sicredi — a Brazilian conglomerate of more than 100 credit unions operating under the same name.
Here, McCoy and Richardson talk about the experience and the impact it has had on Amplify’s own strategies for member engagement, efficiency, and the pursuit of cooperative alliances.
There is more emphasis on the notion of character rather than a calculated creditworthiness, and Sicredi still has very little delinquency.
Part of the reason for this is that during large monthly membership meetings, the owners of the credit union post the names of people who aren’t paying on their loans.
How did Amplify get involved with this program? Had you tried anything like this before?
Terry McCoy: Aside from our CEO — who is on the board of directors for the Cornerstone Credit Union League and has worked with international cooperative groups — we are the only other Amplify employees to leave the country for this type of exchange.
However, Amplify has hosted representatives from Sicredi numerous times over the past few years and those interactions helped assure us that this exchange was a good fit.
Taylor Richardson: Since Sicrediis part of a financial system that is different from our own, we saw this as an opportunity to gain some new perspectives and do something different from what other American financial institutions are trying.
What was the application process like? What was the financial investment?
TM: We had to apply with a written application to WOCCU explaining why we would like to go. We also had phone interviews with WOCCU.
This program is funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of State and Sicredi also paid for things like our food, hotels, and transportation. As a result, the only real cost to Amplify was covering our airfare, which was also fairly minimal.
How is Sicredi different from cooperative organizations here? In what ways is it the same?
TM: Brazil has modeled much of its policies, including things like compliance, on U.S. standards so there are some similarities in approach.
However, because of the political and economic climate, Sicredi also had a lot of freedom and opportunity for innovation in terms of how its credit unions could and should work.
In the years since, they’ve also done a fantastic job of streamlining their operations so that even though each credit union maintains its own board of directors and relative autonomy, all support processes are combined into one location. That means one group handles everything from loans and new accounts to IT issues, which is more streamlined than having 100 credit unions and 100 different ways of doing things.
Another thing we took away was that these organizations focus heavily on working with other cooperatives, not only in financial services but also in industries like agriculture, grocery stores, and public utilities. This includes one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam facilities, which operates in partnership between Paraguay and Brazil.
How do Sicredi members think about financial services and their role in the credit union?
TM: There is more emphasis on the notion of character rather than a calculated creditworthiness, and Sicredi still has very little delinquency.
Part of the reason for this is that during large monthly membership meetings, the owners of the credit union post the names of people who aren’t paying on their loans. Of course, we can’t do that here, but their idea is not to shame these individuals. Rather, it’s more a direct way to remind people that their behaviors impact everyone else in the cooperative.
Most of the time, voter turnout is very high, even among the larger credit unions because members feel that they can effectively drive Sicredi’s direction.
What from this experience have you been able to apply in your department or at Amplify?
TR: One of the biggest things we have begun to incorporate is Sicredi’s idea of a stronger member initiation process.
At monthly meetings, newcomers there are taught exactly what it means to be a member, what their responsibilities are, and what they can expect from the organization. So we’re looking at how to incorporate that same type of in-depth experience using membership booklets and maybe even in-person sessions led by the executive team.
We’re also working on owning the word “cooperative” a bit more and acting on that philosophy more aggressively.
For example, we’ve been focusing on search engine optimization and managing our own paid search campaigns. It’s all keyword driven, so the more companies bid on the same keywords, the more prices go up. We’ve realized there might be an opportunity for local credit unions to work together and avoid driving up those costs unnecessarily while at the same time competing more effectively against banks.
Another option, although we haven’t initiated anything just yet, would be to partner with other credit unions to create shared, original content, which normally takes more time and energy than a single marketing department might have available.