The statistics on consumers’ financial well-being—or lack thereof—are troubling: Two-thirds of Americans—187 million people—are “financially unhealthy,” according to the Financial Health Network. They struggle with their day-to-day finances, have little or no financial cushion in case of an emergency, and are unprepared to seize financial opportunities for security and mobility.
Those who struggle aren’t strangers.
“These are our employees, our families, and our neighbors,” says Gigi Hyland, executive director of the National Credit Union Foundation. “We, as not-for-profit financial cooperatives, must focus on moving this needle. When we come together, we can and do have a positive, nationwide impact.”
Fostering members’ financial well-being is the primary reason credit unions exist. “The Federal Credit Union Act outlines that credit unions were formed ‘to promote thrift and credit for provident purposes’ as a condition of their cooperative structure and federal tax status,” says Mike Schenk, CUNA chief economist and deputy chief advocacy officer. “That’s just another way of saying we’re here to promote financial well-being. It’s the core mission of every credit union.”
Financial Well-Being for All™ also is a critical element of CUNA’s advocacy strategy (“Advocacy army takes charge,” p. 34). Credit union advocates share stories and data with legislators about how credit unions improve members’ financial lives.
“Policymakers on both sides of the aisle care about this because they care about the health and well-being of their constituents,” Schenk says. “They’re interested in improving their constituents’ lives, and credit unions work hard every day to improve the financial lives of American consumers.”
The CUNA Board adopted a unity statement during the 2021 CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference that reads in part, “Improving people’s financial well-being is at the heart of the mission and structure of America’s credit unions.”
Credit unions have a long history of addressing consumers’ financial well-being with programs tailored to the needs of their communities and fields of membership.
BCU in Vernon Hills, Ill., leverages a company partner strategy in building its financial well-being initiatives, says Ken Dryfhout, vice president of strategy and growth for the $5 billion asset credit union.
BCU “goes deep with a small number of large company partners for the benefit of their employees,” he says. “Workplace banking provides the best opportunity for a ‘triple win.’ It’s a win for members, who are financially healthier and more confident. It’s a win for employers, who have a more engaged, less-stressed employee. And it’s a win for the credit union because members are in a better position to engage in the full suite of solutions we offer.”
New members begin their financial well-being journey with BCU by taking an eight-question survey from the Financial Health Network.
“The assessment includes straightforward questions such as if you pay your bills on time,” Dryfhout says. “A lot of assessments use the credit score as a proxy, but the financial health score is much more comprehensive.”
BCU provides sponsor company employees with multiple financial solutions so it can go “end to end in their financial lives,” he says. “We can help companies understand their employees’ financial needs by analyzing the assessment data and providing guidance to identify the proper solution. We also carry that through to execution.”
Lifting members financially also benefits the credit union.
“If you improve members’ standing, whether it’s from a creditworthiness standpoint or in terms of higher engagement and more confidence, they’ll have higher savings balances and could participate in wealth management and investment services,” Dryfhout says. “They could refer friends and family and become promoters of the credit union.”
Abound Credit Union in Radcliff, Ky., built its financial well-being reputation primarily around financial literacy for students. That focus has shifted to making member financial wellness an overall part of its strategy.
This pivot became even more visible when Abound renamed its collections area “member solutions,” says Jake Darabos, chief finance and administration officer at the $2 billion asset credit union.
“That name change was because of financial wellness,” he says. “It’s no longer just about collections; it’s about finding solutions for members and helping them long term.”
Every member solutions employee completes the CUNA Financial Counseling Certification Program to become a certified financial counselor. “We’ll eventually expand that certification to include some of our member service representatives and branch managers because our members need people who can advise them and put them on the path toward financial stability,” Darabos says.
Abound also develops partnerships to expand its reach. “Our partners connect us with resources in the community beyond our membership and challenge us to improve our content,” says Hollie Sexton, public relations/financial education professional. “Our community partnerships connect us and spread the word for us. You can’t ask for anything better than community leaders talking about what your credit union offers and sharing it with people in need.”
Among those partnerships is an online webinar series the credit union developed with Baptist Health Hardin, a local health care provider. The groups developed the program early in the pandemic when social distancing restrictions were in effect.
The Virtually Well Series shares physical and financial health advice through live events and on-demand videos featuring physicians, dietitians, and financial education professionals. Sessions are available via Abound’s YouTube channel.
“Baptist Health Hardin chooses topics based on surveys and patient care,” Sexton says. “We do the same based on trends and what we see with member services.”
Building a thriving YouTube channel remains a challenge, but Darabos loves to share how one viewing—and one member interaction—can make all the difference.
“Hollie worked with a member who viewed one of our YouTube videos and reached out for help,” Darabos says. “This member was not in a good place. She was in a job she didn’t like, and the stress was taking a toll on her physical health. Hollie met with her once a week for eight weeks and got her on the right financial path where she could leave her job for another one and be happier, healthier, and more financially stable.”
These relationships are immeasurable, he adds. “We gauge success one member at a time. Seeing drastic improvements for individual members is all the validation we need to continue doing what we’re doing.”
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