Bill Cheney
Bill Cheney, president/CEO, SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union

Living the advocacy lifestyle

Building relationships with lawmakers is critical for effective advocacy.

August 1, 2019

As Ryan Donovan tells it, credit unions need advocacy champions in both Washington, D.C., and their home districts.

They don’t just make Donovan’s job easier, they’re critical to credit unions’ survival.

“We need to have everyone involved,” says Donovan, CUNA’s chief advocacy officer. “If it’s just the lobbyists in Washington doing the work, we won’t get far and, frankly, we won’t look any different than any other group.”

Thankfully, the credit union system is built on advocacy. That’s why it’s been historically referred to as a movement.

Credit unions’ founders were advocacy champions, and they still exist today. And like those of yesterday, there’s no mold that defines these advocacy champions, Ryan says.

“It takes all kinds,” Donovan says. “We talk a lot about 360-degree advocacy, and part of that is taking the best skills and talents of folks and applying them where they'll make the most difference. It’s about bringing expertise to the table and helping policymakers understand how different proposals will affect credit unions and voters.”

But effective advocacy requires commitment. Donovan uses an analogy virtually every adult can identify with.

“It can’t just be a fad,” Donovan says. “It has to be a lifestyle change. It takes all kinds—there’s no one kind of advocacy champion.

“Also, advocacy must be part of a lifestyle because the political environment is 24/7,” he continues. “It’s goes on all year. Local engagement is as important as coming to Washington.”

Donovan points to Bill Cheney, president/CEO of SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union in Santa Ana, Calif., and former CUNA president/CEO, as someone who understands credit union advocacy from a variety of perspectives.

His perspective? “It’s important that we stick together as a movement and have a consistent message about the credit union difference.”

While Cheney is no longer in Washington, D.C., he still meets with lawmakers regularly at home, and SchoolsFirst Federal relies on Josh Smith as its executive director of credit union advocacy.

‘It’s important that we stick together as a movement and have a consistent message about the credit union difference.’
Bill Cheney

Smith concurs with Cheney’s thoughts on consistently sharing one message. “The credit union message is special—it’s singular and grabs people’s attention. It defines our culture that we’re doing something different. It’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Cheney says its equally important to meet with lawmakers locally as in the nation’s capital. He and Smith have relationships with lawmakers from their home districts as well as those in surrounding districts.

Cheney says the venue for those meetings covers the spectrum: town halls, dinners, fundraisers, and branch meetings.

“We’ll meet lawmakers wherever they want to meet with us,” he says. “It’s all about us letting them know we’ll be a resource for them. Then, if they have any questions, they can say, ‘Hey, I’ll call SchoolsFirst.’ It’s about building that relationship.”

That way, Smith adds, “When they get a bill in front of them, they are much more likely to want our perspective.”

He notes that perspective can be operational, compliance-oriented, consumer advocacy-based, and a long list of other avenues.

“It’s important that they understand what kind of information you can provide,” Smith says. “That comes through sharing facts about what we do in the community, the difference we make in the economy, and the challenges we face in the regulatory environment.”

The credit union story resonates, Cheney says.

“Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citibank all make loans, too,” Cheney says. “But if you're a school employee, you'll never get a better deal than at SchoolsFirst. The same is true for other credit unions, too. Josh is very active with other credit unions in the area, and we share the spotlight. We try to highlight all credit unions and the great work they're doing.”