President's Perspective

Grassroots Motivation

Let’s carry this year’s momentum into 2012.

December 22, 2011

Two lively grassroots actions could well serve as hallmarks for 2011.

Both benefitted credit unions in one way or another—and both taught us great lessons.

The two events were:

1. The battle over interchange, last spring; and

2. The movement by consumers to credit unions, estimated by CUNA as at least 650,000 strong, this fall.

What they have in common is that they were both, truly, grassroots movements—instigated or supported by credit unions.

Even though we didn’t prevail in the interchange battle, I won’t say it was a loss for credit unions. Rather, it was lawmakers’ rejection of banks.

And it was a moment for credit unions’ grassroots prowess to shine. In three months, credit unions delivered more than 600,000 constituent contacts to Congress on the issue of interchange—through emails, phone calls, letters—urging representatives to “stop, study, and start over” with the interchange fee law.

Most important, CUNA and the leagues generated more than 70% of those contacts.

We came close—maybe by as little as one vote—to delaying the new law. We even convinced a number of senators who had voted for the interchange law the year before to vote this year to delay it.

Further, as the Federal Reserve was writing its implementing rules, credit unions posted 5,600 comment letters on these proposed rules—more than half of the 11,000-plus letters the Fed received.

And nearly all the credit union letters opposed the proposal and urged the Fed to reconsider it.

In fact, that’s precisely what the Fed did. Its final rule wasn’t perfect but was certainly an improvement over the proposal. As Federal Reserve Board members announced the final rule, they noted the outpouring of comments by credit unions.

That’s impact. And it was made by credit unions taking action. It’s grassroots power.

This fall, the movement by consumers to credit unions spawned yet another grassroots movement— Bank Transfer Day. It started as a Facebook page by one consumer outraged by bank fees. But it quickly grew beyond Facebook as consumers spread the word through all forms of social media. As a result, at least 650,000 consumers joined credit unions during October, CUNA estimates. And we estimate another 40,000 joined on Nov. 5 alone. The main reason so many consumers joined credit unions was to escape rising bank debit card fees, according to our survey of member credit unions.

That so many people can be inspired in one month to join credit unions is a testament not only to the power of grassroots movements, but to the common sense of consumers who can and will act when they feel they must under today’s economic conditions.

Lessons for us as we wrap up this year and head into a big political year:

  • Grassroots is king. Credit unions are widely recognized as leaders in this area. Let’s exercise our capabilities when necessary, so we’re ready for the next big fight. CUNA and the leagues are working together to keep us in shape right now through programs such as “Plan to Win,” which helps to build our grassroots muscle.
  • Social media can (and does) make a difference. Bank Transfer Day convinced more than 80,000 Americans on Facebook to agree to transfer from a bank to a credit union (and nearly 600,000 others received an invitation to do so). Social media is tailor-made for credit unions and our communities of members. Now’s the time to get on board.
  • Consumers get it. They’re searching for fair treatment, and they’ll get it once they become credit union members. But we need to let them know we’re here—through social media, paid media (if you can afford it), and through earned media, also known as “good press,” nationally and locally.

This has been a phenomenal year for grassroots involvement for credit unions and consumers. Let’s learn and build from it, because there’s so much more for us to gain.

BILL CHENEY is CUNA’s president/CEO.