A recent poll by a credit union of non- but eligible members included this question: Is there a difference between a bank and a credit union? 56% said No; 43% thought there might be but could not identify it.
Yes, we've come a long way since the 1920s and the Great Depression, since Edward Filene and Roy Bergengren badgered legislatures, crisscrossed the country to rally people to a cause. Back in those days everyone knew what banks were about and how ordinary people faced either a bank's closed door or a crooked smile from the street-corner loan shark.
Filene and Bergengren believed they had a solution and they presented it clearly and passionately. People believed in the cause because they could understand the difference. Banks and loan sharks did not have people's best interests in mind; they had taking their money in mind.
We Stopped Talking about the Difference
Now most people don't know the difference. They're not sure there is a problem. Not many people are telling them so anyway.
We don't have the passion that ran hot back in the old organizing days. We don't tell people about the credit union difference and so they don't know there is one.
Meanwhile, banks have been harping their message: that there is no difference, that credit unions are just banks that don't pay taxes. We have been far too lax about countering these charges, of protecting, celebrating and reinforcing the credit union difference. Our silence has spoken volumes, to people and to legislators. We do good, but we hide it under a bushel basket.
Quite obviously we have changed over the decades. In the last 25 years we have broadened our markets and moved away from our affinity identities. We have opened bank-like branches, and many of us have changed our names from something immediately recognizable like North Carolina Teachers or IBM Employees to ones that are abstract.
In trying to be all things to all people without a good game plan, we stopped talking about the difference and genius of the credit union ideal, that of people helping people. Is it any wonder that Americans do not readily understand the difference between banks and credit unions?
Huge Potential Needs a Spark
Everyone in America over the age of 18 should know the difference between a bank and a credit union. Everyone should know the credit union identity, brand, value proposition and relevance. But they don't. The old generation of organizers has passed on. The generation that succeeded them has retired. We need new passion to spread the credit union message to America. We need again to establish in people's minds who we are, what we do, why we do it and why they should join.
A hundred million Americans are not members of credit unions. Our growth is low but our potential for growth is huge.
What's the matter? We are not out to pick pockets. We are not out to line the purses of venture capitalists. We are not about enriching the few at the expense of the many. What we are for is helping the many. Through cooperation – you help me and I'll help you. It's as old as “you help me build my barn and I'll help you build your barn.”
How Can We Bring Back the Passion?
How can we bring back the passion of our early organizing days? How can we make our message understood by a hundred million non-member Americans? The times are inauspicious. The culture celebrates profits, not cooperation. But we have to rediscover our passion and get the message out.
How can we do this? We solicit your answers and thoughts. Please contribute your comments below.