As credit unions have grown in size and sophistication they have also felt the struggle of retaining the best of what they are, and of clearly distinguishing themselves from the banks and other large credit unions around them. We at Community First wrestle with this issue daily, as we have grown far beyond our dreams of 29 years ago. It is difficult, but well worth the effort as we work to make sure we do not become our competition.
We began as a small credit union in Appleton, Wisconsin. Our founder, a charter member of the County Credit Union, was visionary, organizing the first Credit Union Service Center in the State and soon other small, closed-chartered credit unions were clamoring to join. In 1975 the Center chartered a community credit union and by 1978, the directors and members voted to merge the Center’s 13 individual credit unions into the community credit union known as Appleton Area. In 1983, as we prepared to expand our charter we knew it was time to change our name. We wanted something that would resonate with members and the local community no matter where we were located. We ultimately chose “Community First” because it communicates an important part of our mission: to put the community, of our members as well as the community at large, first.
Naturally, we overlap banks and other community chartered credit unions. So we need ways to distinguish ourselves. We do this by trying to “live our name.”
We consistently focus on what makes a credit union unique – the ownership structure. In all communications we reinforce the message that people are owners of the “community” of their credit union as well as the community at large. Like many credit unions we dedicate a percentage of our gross revenue to community support, mainly in philanthropic donations and volunteerism. But this is only a beginning. I serve on nine community boards and numerous committees, and require our senior staff to do likewise. Our credit union has twice been voted the “volunteer business of the year’, and is now asked to ‘sit at the table’ when major community initiatives are being planned.
Community Financial Literacy Programs
An example of our involvement is a program we initiated with our area school districts. Five years ago we met with the local Business/Education partnership committee to discuss the need for financial education in our schools. The committee had originally approached several local banks with the idea of placing branches in the schools and were turned down cold. While we jumped at the opportunity, it was even more important to us that the school district adopt a required course in personal money management. We now we have four fully functional branches in the high schools. Under the guidance of a full-time credit union employee, they are run by high school students, open daily at lunchtime and do anything our other branches do except consider mortgages. The kids get training in money management, interviewing, work and employment skills. Because the program is housed within the school’s marketing curriculum, students also get opportunities to create strategic plans, promotions and advertising. They benefit immensely, and many have moved on to seasonal and permanent work with us once they graduate. True to their word, the district passed a requirement that in Appleton, a high school student must now take a required course in personal finance management in order to graduate. The Wisconsin state legislature is currently considering making this a requirement statewide and is looking at the “Appleton Model” as the standard.
We also helped to establish a financial literacy advisory group, made up of local business people, politicians, even healthcare professionals who understand that financial problems can often lead to mental and other health problems. This committee organized the first Fox Cities Money Conference, a full day of financial education hosted by our local technical college. A variety of courses were offered ranging from beginner to advanced levels, for adults and children ages 6-18. Sessions were also held in Spanish and Hmong. More than 250 people attended and gave rave reviews. The Money Conference will become an annual event.
Cooperative Spirit and Dedication to Community
We know that people here, as in other parts of the country, have seen banks merge, and merge again, each time losing more and more local control. Moreover, they can see that the larger banks are less generous with their community donations than the old local banks were. Community First has definitely benefited from Bank mergers. But as we’ve grown and expanded into other communities, the struggle to develop and maintain a high level of community involvement and visibility grows too. We don’t want to ‘become our competitors’, to have our 17 branches be looked at as part of some big impersonal corporation. We try to step into this void and work at reminding people that they are the owners and decision-makers of the credit union. We want all the communities we serve to feel that we are local to them and dedicated to positively impact their lives.
Despite the fact that some credit unions are falling prey to the temptation of converting to banks, we feel very strongly that there continues to be a place for not-for-profit, cooperative financial institutions. The people in this region respond to the dream of ownership that a cooperative provides. We do lots of advertising, and the majority of it is testimonial-based. Our members enthusiastically tell our story much better than we ever could. Our theme for this year is “We’re all owners of this community: Take Ownership in Your Community.” We believe that our message has been embraced. In fact, people tell us all the time “you really live up to your name”. I have worked here for 28 years. The credit union had less than a million dollars in assets when I started and today is more than half a billion dollars strong. We have exactly the same institutional culture that we started with. People understand this, and people seek us out to work here and join.
Our strong belief in putting our community first has been good business. People join our credit union not only out of a sense of doing what is best for themselves financially, but also out of a sense of doing good for the community in which they live. People want to make a difference. As a cooperative, Community First makes that happen.
Community First is our name, and we strive to live it everyday. Others come to understand that we are different from other financial institutions. This is how we distinguish ourselves. It’s a good way, and it works.