Big Challenges Confronting Small Credit Unions

The entire CU movement is building a broad base of support to help small CUs survive and thrive.

March 01, 2012
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On a mission

After a small New York City credit union closed in August 2010, Joy Cousminer jumped into action. She called an emergency meeting that resulted in the formation of an alliance of about 30 small community development credit unions, called We Care. This alliance earned a 2012 Dora Maxwell Social Responsibility Community Service Award.

“We decided to create an organization that would serve and inspire small credit unions in our area,” says Cousminer, president/CEO of $23 million asset Bethex Federal Credit Union in the Bronx.

We Care members gather monthly for meetings that bring in experts on various topics: new products, corporate reorganization, risk management—“virtually everything our credit unions are interested in,” Cousminer says. Most participating credit unions are church-based and have assets ranging from $200,000 to $7 million.

“Our goal is not to maintain the status quo,” Cousminer says, “but to help credit unions grow.” She encourages them to pursue new revenue streams, such as selling money orders and buying participations in Small Business Administration loans. Bringing in more income enables these credit unions to extend business hours, hire part-time bookkeepers, or take other steps to attract new members and improve operations.

For example, one Brooklyn credit union faced repeated subpar examiners’ reports, and only one of four board members was actively overseeing the credit union. After an embezzlement was discovered and the credit union suffered a robbery, failure seemed imminent.

But after working with We Care advisers for seven months, the credit union has turned it around. It now has seven involved board members, an active supervisory committee, a part-time paid bookkeeper, and improved policies and practices. Its most recent annual meeting drew 43% of its roughly 180 members.

This success inspires the 86-year-old Cousminer and her We Care colleagues. “We feel we can save any credit union that wants to be saved,” she says. “If you do it once, you can do it again.”

A marketing boost

A CEO’s day at a small credit union is consumed by operations, finances, serving members, and putting out fires. “Marketing—and the development of marketing plans—often get put on the back burner,” says Sandi Carangi, director of credit union marketing services at the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association (PCUA).
As a result, Carangi is starting to hear from CEOs of small credit unions that NCUA examiners are looking for marketing plans as an indicator of small credit unions’ viability and sustainability. She’s leading a new program at PCUA—launched in October 2011—that helps small credit unions meet that need.

To design the program, Carangi, the 2010 CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council Business Development Professional of the Year, drew on her years of experience conducting marketing workshops for NCUA’s Office of Small Credit Union Initiatives (OSCUI).

“Our program offers a cost-effective way to give NCUA examiners what they’re looking for,” she says, “without small credit unions having to hire additional staff.” The focus is primarily on credit unions with less than $100 million in assets. These credit unions pay fees for services on a sliding scale according to asset size.

“I’m finding that every credit union we work with is different,” Carangi says. “But a common thread is that credit unions need help with their marketing plans.” 

Credit unions can choose a six-month or 12-month contract, or a per-project arrangement by the hour with a 10-hour minimum. Carangi works closely with the credit union from start to finish to develop marketing plans, carry out the plan’s objectives, and measure the return on investment.

“I suggest marketing strategies that are low-cost and not time-consuming,” Carangi says. “I’ll advise, for instance, that instead of spending X dollars here, they can spend half that much and get the same return.”

Next: Augmenting visibility

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