Reaching Out

CUs take to ferries and float planes to serve indigenous communities.

September 23, 2011
KEYWORDS family , native , services
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'Just like you'

Because half of First American Credit Union’s member households earn less than $15,000 per year, the members’ biggest need is for check cashing, checking accounts with debit cards, and small personal loans—sometimes for as little as $100, says Rico Bautista, president/CEO of the $75 million asset credit union.

The Casa Grande, Ariz., institution serves the Navajo Nation and other tribes. Their only financial services alternatives are payday lenders and title loan companies. “We still provide lines of credit or personal loans for $100 or $200 even though many financial institutions don’t,” Bautista says. “They’re not profitable, but we focus on what our members need and we’ll continue to offer such services.”

First American also offers “free checkless checking” for members who’ve had credit problems in the past. The account provides a debit card but doesn’t allow check writing.

The credit union recently launched a rebranding effort with the slogan, “We’re just like you!” It’s designed to tie First American to the communities it serves.

“We treat all our members the same, regardless of their occupation, income, or needs,” Bautista explains. “We treat our members just as we’d like to be treated.”

The biggest mistake mainstream financial institutions make when trying to serve this market is trying to mold consumers to their business model, he adds. “Instead, they should genuinely approach these markets based on their needs and wants.”

That approach has worked well at Tongass Federal. “Many financial institutions see native communities as high-risk,” Fawcett says. “But if they put faith in the community, the community will respond in kind and be very loyal.”

Serving indigenous people “makes us stronger, better, and cohesive as a financial cooperative,” Fisher adds. “There really is strength in numbers, and we need everyone.”


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