In 2009, credit unions united to tell the story of the credit union difference. Along the way, the industry won the respect of financial experts and earned media attention. It captured national recognition as a safe harbor for fiscal responsibility and as a source for trusted financial information, advice, and services. The industry is now at a tipping point, and with a simple nudge it can parlay that earned recognition and respect into increased membership.
“The more people know about credit unions, the more likely they are to join,” says Jack Quigley, president of Compass Media Group, a political communications and strategy firm based in Chicago. “If you are making loans to small businesses and small businesses are struggling in your community, talk about that. Tie into the larger story.”
Indeed, by focusing on local impact, front-line employees are relaying strong messages: Credit unions operate in members’ best interests; Credit unions are a brand of financial institution dedicated to meeting members’ needs in good times as well as in bad; Credit unions are a place of economic safety and soundness. Such messages resonate; they contributed to the 1.4% net increase in membership in 2009.
But it’s not only messages about safety and soundness that spur membership growth. Opportunities abound to finagle feel-good press exposure about dedication to community development.
“We’ve tried to get credit unions positioned as being an integral part of the community… to raise awareness of the credit union in the community,” says John Radebaugh, President of the North Carolina Credit Union League. It is a strategy credit unions across the country are employing.
This tax season GHS Federal Credit Union in New York is offering free tax preparation services as part of an initiative to ensure residents maximize their tax returns, specifically the money returned on the earned income tax credit. The credit can mean an additional $5,500 or more to some earners. GHS’s tax service garnered coverage in January from Syracuse’s 24-hour news provider News 10 Now.
Also in January, NPR spotlighted Allegacy Federal Credit Union’s in-school branches as one effective way to teach students about money. Although the approach is not new, the Great Recession brought to light the dire need for financial education. According to the current 5300 call report, Allegacy is now just one of approximately 314 credit unions in more than 30 states to offer in-school branches, but by inserting itself into the community psyche, it garnered national recognition.
The most viable financial model in America today is the cooperative credit union system. At a time when borrowers were strapped for credit, it offered mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards. In doing so, the industry increased market share as other lenders pulled back. Credit unions have invested more than a billion dollars in student lending and have contributed to the growth of small business. Put simply: The credit union model is working. The public is hearing the good news, now is the time for them to experience firsthand the “the difference we make.”