Volunteer Leadership: What’s Old Is New Again

The role of board leadership is as strong as ever.

January 13, 2013

One great strength of our movement is the volunteer board of directors.

Those who pioneered the first credit unions envisioned financial institutions—defined and managed by volunteers—operating for the benefit of members.

Boards originally were involved in running the credit union, and each director held a critical leadership position. As time passed, boards naturally came to rely on professional management to handle daily operations.

Today, credit unions’ fields of membership may be local, regional, or even international, with employer-based or community charters. But even today, as in the past, boards must grow in knowledge and develop the ability to work together to guide the enterprise.

Boards of directors have three primary duties. They’re obligated to hire qualified management, to understand the regulations and finances of the credit union, and to set appropriate policies.

These duties and the corporate duties of loyalty, faithfulness, and care are written in law and statute.

I would add another duty, which I believe is important to the future well-being of individual credit unions and will benefit the entire movement.

This duty, which needs to be nurtured, is the duty of board members to advocate for their institutions and for credit unions as a whole.

During my time serving both the Texas Credit Union League Board and the CUNA Board, it became apparent to me that as credit union leaders we had begun to depend on paid staff to be our “grassroots.” This hasn’t worked for our for-profit brethren, and it will not work for us.

What greater need is there than to educate our legislators on the credit union difference? And, truthfully, who better to do this than our members, who learn from and are inspired by our board members?

This widespread education needs to begin at home and extend to the Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, schools, service clubs, and elsewhere.

Board members are elected by members—generally their peers. They typically have contacts throughout the field of membership—and they often have local influence, a delicate attribute to be used judiciously.

If board members are active in Rotary, Lions Club, or church of choice, they have opportunities to reach out to others and share the credit union story.

If we’re serious about promoting the difference we all talk about, those in leadership positions have to actively tell our story rather than keep it a secret.

In addition to sharing our story, it’s important to recognize that democracy is built on local politics. Credit unions have an interest in what’s going on in the community, and members might just like to know how political changes affect their credit union and their finances.

Just as our lawns and gardens must be nourished, so, too, must our grassroots efforts. Volunteer boards, working with members, are the most important tools for strengthening local initiatives.

The days of board members managing a credit union are over. But the role of board leadership is as strong as ever, rooted in volunteer activity.

To be effective, we need to embrace that role and stand united with our members.

HARRIET MAY is immediate past CUNA Chairman ex-officio and retired CEO of GECU, El Paso, Texas.