Recapture the Passion

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

April 16, 2012
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Before there was a CUNA there was The Bridge—the forerunner of Credit Union Magazine—created by Bergengren to spread the word. Its masthead depicted a road named “Credit Union Way” leading over a bridge to the “land of opportunity.”

An evangelical fervor drove the credit union pioneers—a fervor many lack today. In the words of Bergengren, credit unions were emblematic of “the brotherhood of man.”

Granted, you can dwell too long in the past and fail to grasp the implications of transformative change. But fast forward to 2012 to see that the vision that propelled the first credit unions is as relevant as ever, given the challenges our society faces.

You can feel it in early mottos, such as “not for profit, not for charity, but for service,” and in more contemporary brand slogans, such as “America’s credit unions: where people are worth more than money.”

Recent events like the social media-driven “Bank Transfer Day” and its Huffington Post predecessor, “Move Your Money,” were successful because of public outrage over the business practices of large banks and Wall Street. That’s why several hundred thousand banking consumers moved their money to credit unions last fall.

Credit unions’ reputation for putting their members before profit has earned them a phenomenal amount of goodwill. While credit unions, alone, can’t reverse the

Transformative Trends Affecting U.S. Households

We live in an age of massive transformation, bringing dramatic changes to the nation’s consumers. Consider the most obvious ones:

  • A three-decade-long stagnation of wages paid to middle-class workers—particularly workers with only a high-school diploma or less—making it increasingly difficult to obtain and sustain a once-prevalent middle-class lifestyle.
  • An economy that has shifted from good-paying manufacturing jobs to lower-paying service or part-time work, and one that currently is unprepared to fill the growing gap between the well-paying jobs of the future and the educated work force that will be needed to fill them.
  • A growing disparity in household wealth not only between the richest 1% and everyone else, but between relatively or modestly affluent households and the rest of America. This type of disparity hasn’t been seen since the 1920s and the gilded age of the 19th century. While the left and right spiritedly debate the relevance of these trends, serious questions remain regarding the upward social and economic mobility of future generations.
  • A loss of retirement security as traditional pensions have been replaced by inadequately self-funded programs, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, while the nation simultaneously argues over the sustainability of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
  • The always-persistent threat that credit unions’ unique status as tax-exempt financial cooperatives could be revoked as a misguided and minor part of a solution to fix the nation’s deficit and debt problems.

There are others, but the key point is that the trends mentioned here aren’t transitory but transformative. Credit unions must address them to meet their members’ long-term needs.

disturbing economic trends affecting American consumers and households, they have a role to play and would be remiss if they failed to drive a marketing truck through the antibank opening that currently exists.

Thinking that becoming indispensable is primarily a branding and marketing challenge, however, is equally remiss—as is faith that technology and innovation will do the trick. They all matter of course and, in fact, are high priorities if the credit union movement is to prosper for another 100 years.

Bergengren closed his autobiography “Crusade” with a quote from a short story that moved him: “The world goes on and the dream persists, not because of blind faith and young enthusiasm, but because there are those…who’ve known the pain of heartbreak (and to whom) the dream is more important than the pain—those who have faith despite the illusion. What other meaning does history have except continuity of some kind, the persistence of this dream of mankind?”

Capture that depth of passion again for the credit union idea and what it can mean for the aspirations of man and woman, and we might achieve that elusive goal of indispensability.

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.

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