The Power of Political Outreach

A new landscape demands renewed grassroots activism.

January 18, 2011

Legislators in everystate and in our nation’s capital are gearing up for the 2011 wave of lawmaking. This common activity will have some uncommon elements this year because of the dramatic amount of political party turnover within the legislative and congressional ranks. That turnover brings new ideas and priorities for laws and regulations that will affect many people, organizations, and businesses—including credit unions.

This political landscape demands renewed grassroots activism. Not only do we need to make sure lawmakers—new and old—understand the purpose and role of credit unions, but we must demonstrate that millions of people are members and supporters of the credit union difference.

Even so, debate remains among credit union leaders about the appropriate level and direction of our activist efforts:

Some are uncomfortable when asked to support a certain candidate;

Others wonder if we should be so vocal on key issues; and

Still others question whether financial campaign contributions and independent expenditures are the right things to do.

These are valid concerns. Unfortunately, some very strident and divisive interest groups have given activism a bad reputation that seems contrary to credit unions’ collaborative approach to problem solving. Any activism can have the potential of creating “enemies” on the wrong side of an issue or alienating some members. Board members or CEOs might understandably feel torn about their responsibilities in this area.

It would be simpler if credit unions could merely claim to be nonpolitical and thus stay above the fray. But that’s not our reality. To ignore the huge impact laws and regulations have on our operations and members would be to set ourselves up for failure.

Indeed, our very beginnings were founded on activism. Today, credit unions are creatures of public policy—we can only perform those activities specifically provided for in federal and state law. At the same time, we have many influential competitors actively lobbying to place credit unions at a disadvantage.

As such, we have a responsibility to help members understand which lawmakers and issues will help or hurt their financial security.

Perhaps this is so clear to me because I’ve had the opportunity to work with the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) and its members in several emerging democracies—peoples and cultures just learning how to speak up for themselves and their rights.

They’re willing to be assertive and persistent with policy makers, though many lack a formal process or system in which to make their pleas heard. They understand that only by reaching out to policy makers can they ensure the rules and statutes that dictate the services to their members are helpful, not harmful.

When it comes to political outreach, many of these emerging movements find themselves in the same quandary as we do in the U.S. We’re faced with the same questions:

Do we speak up without alienating the wrong people?

Can we get involved without being “tainted” by the bad reputation of political corruption?

Can our voices be heard when we’re a small minority among larger, more established interests?

We can answer these questions by working together through the efforts of credit unions. I’ve witnessed successful grassroots programs through WOCCU’s International Partnership Program, which is supported by the Credit Union National Association and individual leagues.

The program brings together representatives from credit union movements around the world to exchange ideas and expertise. One extremely valuable aspect of the program is a broader understanding of worldwide policy makers, their perspectives on credit unions, and how credit union members in other countries influence public policy.

As we prepare for the new legislative session, it remains paramount that we maximize our credit union grassroots advocacy efforts to reach their true potential.

I reflect on our friends in the Central American and Eastern European credit union movements who’ve shown us with their actions that our obligation to our members isn’t a question of “should” we be involved in the political process, but rather “how” can we become involved with honor and integrity.

PATRICK S. JURY is CEO/president of the Iowa Credit Union League.