A Heart for Service

CU leader embarks on bold effort to serve people who lack access to affordable financial services.

October 02, 2013
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At a strategic planning session a few years ago, directors and key executives at Freedom First Credit Union, Roanoke, Va., focused on one vital question:

“If we weren’t here, who would care?”

From the discussion arose a new commitment.

“We said, ‘Let’s be different,’ ” recalls Paul Phillips, president/CEO. Under Phillips’ leadership, Freedom First embarked on a bold effort to serve people who lack access to traditional financial institutions.

“In doing so, we’ve breathed new life into the credit union and given our work purpose,” Phillips says. “Our skill sets are evolving to include such things as grant writing and leading community collaborations to do things for-profits either would not or could not do. It’s been a fun journey.”

In 2010, Freedom First obtained designations as a community development credit union, a low-income credit union, and a community development financial institution. It also created products and programs designed specifically for low-income people, who comprise 61% of the credit union’s members.

One such program is Responsible Rides, a collaboration with community nonprofits and Enterprise Car Sales. Borrowers get not only a loan, but also classes in personal finance and vehicle maintenance.

Most of the loans go to single minority mothers with credit scores below 600 and annual incomes of no more than $18,000. Phillips reports a “manageable” delinquency rate for the $1 million portfolio.

He remembers the first borrower, who arrived to make her first car payment only to find the lobby door locked on a Saturday.

“She started crying because she was so proud of making that first payment,” Phillips says.

The woman soon realized the drive-through was open. For the first time in her life, she used a drive-through to conduct financial business.

Freedom First also participates in the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Set-Aside Program to issue forgivable loans for home weatherization, repairs, mobility adaptations, and more.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory (www.appreciationatwork.com/assess) will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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