At the end of a planning session a director said to me: “I understand why credit unions were formed in 1934. But if they did not exist today, would we start them, and what need would they serve?”
The director's inquiry raises the fundamental question of vision: Why do credit unions exist and whom do they serve? Some persons may not give the question a second thought, but pondering it may be more critical than ever.
Today most credit unions have a plan, but many lack a strategy. The plan is the budget plus the list of projects and initiatives to be accomplished in the short term. But strategy specifies how credit unions are different. This is important because to many commentators, credit unions are generally co-equal with other financial service providers.
RECAPTURING THE ETHOS
But is our future best understood as merely a subspecies of financial services? Is there another way to understand and act on the UNIQUE role credit unions play? I believe there is a term that can better highlight what credit unions have done, and can do, to make their contributions more distinct. The term is "social entrepreneurs."
(I believe in this context the term, "social" is just as important as the term "entrepreneur." "Social" identifies the credit union's goal as doing good in society, not just making money.)
Credit unions were founded to challenge the status quo. Sometimes doing so meant providing individuals with financial services that were not available anywhere else. Groups of teachers, government employees, and railroad and factory workers organized to pool resources to give members an economic opportunity.
Discovering and then serving unmet needs has traditionally been the role of entrepreneurs, individuals who see potential where others do not. Then, through persistence or even irrational optimism, they commit resources to realize the vision. What needs in today's society are not being met?
CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
Today an organization's impact can be much more than its business purpose.
Across America, marketplace issues are about more than price. It is a symptom of the fact that not all of a society's needs can be met by market-driven responses or state-supported programs. It is these gaps or needs that credit unions originally responded to, and to which they still can today.
As social entrepreneurs, credit unions can bring social, not just economic change, challenge private ownership models with commonwealth solutions and accomplish this in a democratic structure of accountability.
How can credit unions recapture their role as social innovators promoting community well being and economic democracy? We must identify emerging needs or ones not being met. Should loans for energy efficient automobiles enjoy lower rates? Should credit unions proactively seek financing for daycare centers in low-income areas, for public-private housing projects, for community retirement housing?
Responding to these and other unmet opportunities is how credit unions can define their uniqueness. Look to the community, ask the members, and initiate action. Isn't that how credit unions were begun in the first place?