Remember Our Roots and Stretch Further

The conversation about philosophy is what separates CUs from profit-driven institutions.

October 1, 2012

We face a paradox in the credit union movement.

On one hand, we believe the cooperative way is practically and fundamentally good for consumers. This conviction compels us to grow our credit unions to serve an expanding pool of members.

On the other hand, we face a growing chorus of issues that tugs on our philosophical roots.

These are challenging times. Managing a credit union has become increasingly complex. Risk management, regulatory compliance, and day-to-day operational concerns compete for our attention.

Credit union leaders must perform a balancing act—keeping philosophical concerns in perspective and preventing them from getting pushed aside, or succumbing to the technical issues of the day.

Most members join credit unions for one important reason. The cooperative way offers something for-profit institutions cannot.

Members welcome the opportunity to participate in a financial society that meets their needs for fairness and affordability.

When I gather with colleagues from different credit unions, we discuss compliance woes, new products, investment opportunities, and other mechanical topics. The discussion is usually civil and scholastic.

When the talk turns to credit union philosophy, tempers often flare and fur flies. We have different opinions on what conduct is proper and befitting true credit union philosophy.

I think this passion only demonstrates that philosophy remains an important matter for credit union boards and managers.

The architects of the credit union movement—Edward Filene and Roy Bergengren—would marvel at the sophistication and achievements of today’s credit unions.

I suspect, however, their sense of wonder would be short-lived. History suggests both gentlemen would prod the movement to remember its roots and stretch further.

For purists, philosophy continues to be the heartbeat of the movement. But, for it to really matter to members, we must continually talk it up.

Every advertisement, promotion, and message should include a philosophical element. Each credit union planning session should start with a reaffirmation of our philosophical foundation.

We should vet every new product through a philosophical filter.

The conversation about philosophy is more than an academic exercise. It’s what separates credit unions from profit-driven institutions. Credit union pioneers understood this. They were aware of the conditions of consumers and implored credit unions to tackle society’s problems.

Credit unions demonstrated they’re profoundly different and are important players in political advocacy and market competitiveness. We should be proud of this long and successful past.

Against many odds, credit unions rose to the challenge of addressing the financial needs of millions of members, owners, and consumers. The movement endured multiple recessions, relentless competition, and regulatory pressure.

We reached major milestones in membership growth and total assets.

Yes, the movement’s founders would salute us for keeping the dream alive, but they would also remind us our work is not yet done.

I look forward to future editions of Credit Union Magazine where I can look back at all the good things the credit unions of today have accomplished.

But to get there, we need a renewed commitment to the movement’s heartbeat.

MAURICE SMITH is president of Local Government Federal Credit Union, Raleigh, N.C.