Member Advisory Councils

CUs get valuable feedback from these groups to improve member service.

October 26, 2010


Advisory councils give your members a voice.

Online communication with councils helps CUs stay in touch with members and get instant feedback.

Board focus: Define your council’s scope, purpose, and expectations before you recruit participants.

Ben Allen, 22, of Crosby, Minn., just might have credit unions in his DNA. His parents are members of two credit unions, and when Allen was 19, he joined the credit union his grandparents belonged to—Mid-Minnesota Federal Credit Union in Baxter, Minn.

Soon after becoming a member, Allen got even more involved at Mid-Minnesota Federal by volunteering to serve on the Teen Advisory Council. “I like the credit union, and I like being able to communicate more with the credit union,” he says.

Victor Sanchez is highly active in the Hispanic community in Battle Creek, Mich. That’s why United Educational Credit Union asked him to join its Hispanic Advisory Council. “Even though I’m busy and I need another meeting to go to like I need a hole in the head, this is important,” Sanchez says. “I believe in credit unions. Every time I go to council meetings, I see a lot of member involvement. To me, that’s worthwhile.”

Allen’s and Sanchez’s credit unions are among those discovering the value of member advisory councils. These groups can act as sounding boards and referral networks to hone new product offerings and to find new members, employees, and directors.

Councils vary in purpose, composition, and types of activities. But credit unions using this approach have learned there’s one overarching guideline to follow when creating a council: Think not only about what your credit union hopes to gain, but also about how your members can benefit from the council.

Virtual volunteers

Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU), Raleigh, N.C., has 28 advisory councils with 476 members. The councils play a critical role in helping the credit union stay connected to 189,000 members statewide. LGFCU has a contractual agreement with Raleigh-based State Employees’ Credit Union through which LGFCU provides services to LGFCU members at State Employees’ branches.

“We have no storefront,” explains Sandy Green, volunteer development officer at the $1 billion asset LGFCU. “We rely on people who believe in the credit union to go out to tell others about the benefits of membership.”

LGFCU has had member councils dating back to the mid-1980s. But they got new life in late 2006 when Green was hired to oversee volunteer development full time.

“Volunteers on our councils are ‘virtual’ volunteers,” she explains. “I send regular e-mails to let them know what’s happening at the credit union, and we send out the occasional survey.”

In-person meetings occur twice a year—once in the spring when council members gather in Raleigh, and again in the fall during a round of meetings held in different parts of the state. Council members also receive The Wing, a quarterly newsletter targeted to them, and they can contact LGFCU anytime to offer feedback and suggestions.

Examples of suggestions implemented so far include creating a youth website, developing a volunteer orientation program, and placing an LGFCU sticker on the doors of State Employees’ branches to enhance LGFCU’s identity.

In 2008, LGFCU launched a youth council, called Our Generation—Speakin’Up, made up of middle- and high-school students who meet twice a year. A private Facebook-like page is being developed to facilitate the exchange of ideas and information.

All 28 advisory councils are vital to LGFCU, Green says. “We have 60 employees,” she says. “But by having another 476 sets of eyes and ears out there paying attention to what’s going on, we absolutely serve our members better.”

A voice for teens

The purpose behind establishing the Teen Advisory Council in 2007 at Mid-Minnesota Federal was to “give teens a voice,” says Sarah Speer, marketing and business development specialist at the $218 million asset credit union. “We need to know what our teen members are thinking and what products and services they need.”

The Teen Advisory Council has five members: four young members and one parent. “They do the work of 20 people,” Speer says. “They’re excited about what they’re doing, and they have great ideas.”

At the first meeting, the council members brainstormed a list of topics they felt were important to teens, and they set priorities. They’ve been working down the list ever since. For each council meeting—held about three times a year—Speer brings in a presenter to address a topic the council requested.

“Then they figure out what to do with that information,” Speer explains. “How will we get it out to teens? Will it be a workshop or an article in the teen newsletter?” Council members are in charge of writing newsletter articles.

As for workshops, council members had the idea of holding these somewhere other than the credit union to grab teens’ interest. For instance, a workshop on job-hunting skills took place at a water park. Another workshop on buying a used car was held at a bowling alley. Participants got free passes to use the recreational facilities after the meeting. “We had sell-out crowds at both workshops,” Speer reports.

Mid-Minnesota Federal also has six branch advisory councils—one for each of the branch offices spread out across six rural counties. The four- to five-member councils meet quarterly with credit union management to get updates on the credit union and to discuss what’s happening in the community. One major outcome of the councils’ work has been a greater emphasis on publicizing the credit union’s financial education offerings. “That has become a strong goal here because of feedback from the advisory councils,” Speer says.

No matter what type of advisory council a credit union wants to initiate, the key is to “find people who are genuinely passionate about the credit union difference,” Speer advises. “You don’t want to have to twist arms.”

Convenient connection

Years ago, Cabrillo Credit Union had an advisory committee of members who served primarily as ambassadors spreading the word about the credit union. Efforts to revive that committee last year hit a brick wall. “No one showed up at the meeting,” says Jennifer Vega, project manager at the $170 million asset credit union in San Diego. “We realized we had to do something different.”

Part of the difficulty is the membership make-up. Although Cabrillo has multiple select employee groups (SEG), its three core SEGs include people with erratic work schedules, such as nurses, firefighters, police officers, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees. Scheduling outside meetings is difficult for people with unpredictable schedules.

So Cabrillo struck on the idea of having an advisory council—called Inner Circle—that handles all its tasks online. “We figure they can engage when it’s convenient for them,” Vega says.

The council’s composition reflects Cabrillo’s designated primary target group: people ages 18 to 35 from the three core SEGs. Thirty-two members are now active in Inner Circle. One of their key tasks is to beta-test new products and services. For instance, they were instrumental in shaping the remote deposit product Cabrillo introduced last year.

“They told us what didn’t work and what was confusing,” Vega says. “By the time we rolled out the program to the rest of our membership, it had been refined.” The Inner Circle participants will serve a similar function before Cabrillo launches mobile banking.

One advantage of an online advisory group is that it’s easy to have lots of members. “The bigger the better,” Vega says, especially when it comes to product testing. The major challenge, on the other hand, is keeping people engaged.

“We can capture them with a product beta-test, but then we don’t have anything for them for a while,” Vega says. “It’s better to have constant activity because once you lose them for a bit, you almost have to start the engagement process all over again. We’re still working on that part.”

De Dios


It can be easy to overlook an essential first step when creating a member advisory council. “People get excited and start recruiting members,” says Miriam De Dios, vice president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Coopera Consulting, a strategic partner of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). “They forget about the foundational piece.”

Before you recruit, think about your purpose, she suggests. Why are you forming the council? What do you expect to get from it?

Keeping council members motivated is also crucial. While De Dios works with credit unions reaching out to Hispanics, she offers a few tips that apply to any type of council:

• Show you’re serious. Let members know you’ll do something with the recommendations and information they provide. “That sets the tone,” De Dios says.

• Keep people involved. Between meetings, keep people engaged by contacting them to get their opinionsand advice on issues that arise.

• Give recognition. Write a press release for local media announcing your council members. Give them thank-you gifts. Provide business cards to council members. That creates a feeling of ownership, she says.

A wealth of ideas

Keeping enthusiasm high has been no problem with United Educational’s 11-member Hispanic Advisory Council. “In fact, sometimes we have to cut the meetings short,” says Joan Miller, executive assistant/marketing at the $101 million asset credit union. “They could keep going for hours.”

The credit union began reaching out to the Battle Creek, Mich., Hispanic community a year ago and created its Hispanic Advisory Council this spring. The group usually meets every other month. The credit union provides dinner followed by a meeting that kicks off with a prepared list of questions. Reactions and ideas flow freely from there.

“They give us more to do than we can handle, which is pretty exciting,” says Fran Godfrey, United Educational’s president/CEO. “They let us know how to reach the community and what they need in terms of products and services.”

One new product introduced thus far is a credit-builder loan called American Dream. The credit union also is looking into reloadable debit cards, which are more convenient than remittances for sending money to family members who live in other countries.

Useful suggestions also have sprung from the quarterly meetings of the Hispanic Advisory Council at $8 million asset Village Credit Union, Des Moines, Iowa. One suggestion implemented is a punch-card promotion for remittances: Members buy five remittances and get the sixth free. The council proposed throwing a Christmas party last year, which turned out to be so popular it will be an annual event.

“The council also has come up with ideas we haven’t implemented—yet,” says Debbie Whittie, CEO. One with high potential would be to host a Mother’s Day celebration, complete with a Mexican mariachi band. “Women swoon over that,” Whittie says. “Someday we’ll do the band idea, but it’s kind of expensive.”

The council is a vital part of Village’s outreach to Hispanics, which started about three years ago. “We get marketing ideas and feedback on what’s important to this group,” Whittie says. “The council also spreads the word about the credit union, which is so important to build trust.”

Council members reap rewards, too, she adds. “They feel important because they have a voice,” Whittie says. “They’re excited that someone is really listening to them.”