Jessica Sharon believes members generally want to pay their bills. The associate vice president of financial outreach at $678 million asset Pelican State Credit Union in Baton Rouge, La., also recognizes they’re not always able to do so.
“Bad things happen to good people,” she says, noting that inflation, job loss, divorce, natural disasters, changes in ability, and death are all factors that impact consumers’ financial situation. “Every day our members have more issues. Why should we constantly hold them back for one problem that happened one time? What can we do to help our members improve their financial situation while also bringing qualified borrowers and deposits to our credit union?
Pelican State works with members to ensure one-time or short-term issues have a limited impact on their financial journey, she says. The credit union’s financial wellness program works with members in person, on the phone, or virtually, with members averaging anywhere from six months to 2-3 years in the program.
The credit union, which also spread financial wellness on the PBS show “Opportunity Knock$,” offers products and services specifically designed for people of modest means. Sharon says financial education brings members to the credit union, but products and service keep them coming back.
It’s a cyclical pattern that benefits everyone, as qualified borrowers become loyal members, driving credit union growth and expansion.
Pelican State seeks practical applications for financial education, such as holding real-life budgeting simulations in which students receive a fictional profile of how much money they make, their debt, whether they have kids, and more.
The simulations are meant to prepare kids for the future, offering jobs and pay scales commonly found in the Baton Rouge area.
The credit union also engages young people by paying students for each A grade they receive and offering School Pride Debit Cards that feature school logos and raise money for schools with every transaction.
Participating schools with less than 500 active School Pride cards receive 5 cents for each transaction, while schools with more than 500 active cards receive 10 cents for each use.
“We’re able to engage with the school system and show that they’re a true partner while helping them,” Sharon says. “It’s a good way to help schools who really need the income and growth.”
In 2022, Pelican State’s educational outcomes led to 257 new members joining the financial wellness program, 236 individual counseling sessions, 208 loans for $1.7 million provided to members who didn’t qualify before joining the wellness program, and 149 community and organizational workshops for 2,453 people.
Those efforts have created qualified borrowers in the community, with:
“They’re going to come back time and time again because they didn’t have opportunity until they met us,” Sharon says. “That is long-term member loyalty. You’re doing extreme good, and you’re getting more members. That’s the whole point of doing well and serving your members: gaining more members to help.
“If you focus on financial wellness, you’re being a true credit union,” she continues. “That’s what we’re called to do. Remember who we are and what our purpose is.”