Management

Recapture the Passion

An evangelical fervor drove the CU pioneers—a fervor many lack today.

April 16, 2012
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Are credit unions indispensable? That was the provocative question asked of participants at CUNA’s National Credit Union Roundtable meeting last May.

And despite the exceptional service credit unions provide to members and the important role they play in enabling social and economic mobility, the candid answer is no. Credit unions are relevant, good—even great—but not indispensable.

They’re uniquely beneficial to consumers, important, and critical in their role in the financial services marketplace. But they’re not indispensable.

Then again, few things are. But roundtable credit unions and the movement’s leadership understand the importance of credit unions being more essential to American society.

They realize it’s important to move beyond relevancy toward developing a 21st century vision and road map for credit unions that ensures their future and increases their value to society as a whole.

That’s a worthy task but not an easy one, for many reasons, including:

  • The exponential impact of technology on financial services, combined with the movement’s relatively small size and its limited resources, is a major competitive issue for credit unions. It can be overcome, but it underscores how essential ongoing collaboration and cooperation are among credit unions. Pooling the movement’s resources for the benefit of the whole is, and always will be, crucial to credit union success.
  • Momentous economic, financial, and social trends are affecting the financial security of many American households. For credit unions to determine their long-term role as financial cooperatives, and to successfully fulfill that role, they must understand just how substantial these trends are, how they interrelate, and how they affect consumer households.

A couple of important and forward-thinking initiatives are underway to help credit unions sort through these issues. One is a project that roundtable credit unions are sponsoring with Silicon Valley’s Singularity University.

It’s an immersion process planned for a 10-week period this summer and fall. A Singularity cohort of thought leaders will be assigned to focus on the future of consumer finance and the role credit unions will need to play. The Filene Research Institute has agreed to oversee the project.

A second project, spearheaded by CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney, includes a geographically dispersed series of focus groups to help craft a 21st century vision for the movement.

Regardless of their importance, however, technology and innovation alone won’t make credit unions indispensable. And vision without action is a daydream, according to a purported Japanese proverb. Vision is meaningless unless it’s grounded in the core values of a business. That was the lesson of the Jim Collins and Jerry Porris book, “Built to Last,” and the foundation of the authors’ subsequent books.

I recall a debate a few years back among credit unionists over the word “movement” and whether it should be replaced by “industry.” I’m glad “movement” won the day, because it implies a value that “industry” does not.

A movement is about ongoing action and progress on behalf of economic and social good. Think of the civil rights, tea party, and “Occupy Wall Street” movements.

Credit union core values are rooted in their past. The seed that became the U.S. credit union movement was planted in 1908—when a Catholic priest in New Hampshire called upon a social reformer in Quebec to help found the first credit union in the United States to serve struggling mill workers.

Then in 1921 Edward Filene hired a lawyer named Roy Bergengren to head the National Credit Union Extension Bureau in Boston. Bergengren called the credit union movement a crusade and a fight for economic democracy.

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