Embrace lasting change
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives change board recruitment strategies
Creating a board of directors that members and employees alike see as leaders who want to hear the concerns of “people like me” is a vital part of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Making DEI part of leadership selection and ongoing operations is a never-ending journey that mirrors the evolution of their communities, say board members and senior leaders. While embarking on a continuous DEI journey is no small task, the alternative is losing touch with member needs.
- Strive to mirror your members’ demographics on the board.
- A diverse board allows the credit union to be more innovative.
- Board focus: Board diversity provides a better understanding of members’ needs.
Greylock Federal Credit Union, Pittsfield, Mass., serves communities in western Massachusetts, eastern New York, and southern Vermont that today are 90% white. Yet the fastest-growing demographic groups in those areas are immigrants and people of color.
“If we want to be here thriving in 20, 30, or 40 years as a region and as financial institutions, we need to embrace the change that is happening all across America,” says John Bissell, CEO of the $1.4 billion asset credit union.
Considering white, middle-class experiences as the norm and all other experiences and value systems as “other,” he says, benefits a narrower demographic.
Roughly seven years ago, Greylock Federal leadership realized they needed to work toward having a board and workforce that reflect the wider community.
Due to that work, Greylock Federal has:
- Assembled an 11-member board that includes six members who are women or people of color. The board unanimously committed to the Credit Union DEI Collective Pledge to Action and has added “accessibility” to its Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) Program.
- Increased the percentage of employees of color from less than 5% in 2015 to 10% in 2020.
- Developed products that meet the needs of a broader range of members. The credit union offers more than 25 loans, including mortgages, that expand access to home ownership.
- Reviewed lending bias in credit scoring and account decisioning with the help of a data expert from a minority-owned business.
- Partnered with community organizations that serve specific demographic groups, including the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network, to gain insights into community needs.
Finding the path to leadership
Recruiting a diverse board takes time and persistence. Greylock Federal board members Ty Allan Jackson and Sheila LaBarbera took different paths to board service.
Jackson, who is Black, joined the board in 2015 after being introduced to the credit union during two dinner events. Jackson is the founder of Big Head Books LLC and co-founder of Read or Else, which combats the cycle of illiteracy. He appreciated Greylock Federal’s efforts to verify that he had the “caliber and quality” to serve, as well as the credit union’s direct approach of asking him to join the board.
When other credit unions complain about their inability to attract diverse board members, he wryly responds, “How many did you actually ask?”
“You have to court diverse board members, you have to do the legwork, and you have to be able to see their level of commitment to the community,” Jackson says. He has “great pride” in serving on a board that includes people who are Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and female.
That wasn’t always the case.
LaBarbera sought a seat on the all-white, all-male board in 1999. A board member suggested it was ”not the right time” for her to serve. Despite the pushback, LaBarbera won election and became the first woman to chair the board.
She says creating a more diverse board makes it easier to consider new ideas.
“When you sit in a room where the demographic is all the same, you knew what you were up against because they all had the same thought process,” LaBarbera says. “Today, everyone has different perspectives.”
NEXT: Start with the ‘why’
Start with the ‘why’
Knowing the “why” for DEI efforts is critical to success, says Samira Salem, CUNA’s vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, Greylock Federal pursues DEI both because it’s the right thing to do and because it helps reach members who represent the credit union’s future growth.
“This approach is a lifestyle choice,” she says. “It means applying a DEI lens throughout your organization and to your products, services, and outreach to current and potential members. It requires a high level of commitment and clarity about why you’re doing this work.”
Internally, DEI creates organizations that are more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable. Externally, DEI helps organizations have a greater impact on marginalized populations.
For example, Salem says recent evaluations of both the Coopera Hispanic Outreach program and the Juntos Avanzamos designation found credit unions that participated in these programs achieved higher growth in membership, loans, and assets than those that did not.
“It should come as no surprise that diverse and inclusive organizations are more collaborative, more innovative, and better able to avoid risks,” Salem says. “We see better team performance, customer orientation, and improved decision-making. Ultimately, becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is a win-win for all.”
Rebuilding with diversity
Diversity has been an important part of efforts to rebuild Ironworkers USA Federal Credit Union. The Portland, Ore.-based credit union increased its assets from $7.5 million in 2010 to $56 million in 2020 by broadening its base of union ironworkers across the country.
Board Chair Robert Camarillo says that as more women and workers of color join the Ironworkers Union, they want to see “people who look like them” in leadership and on the board. Achieving that at Ironworkers USA Federal meant ending traditional referrals for board seats.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done to reduce barriers and be more diverse and inclusive,” he says.
Volunteer leaders on the six-member board and four-member supervisory committee include three people of color from varied age groups, starting at age 25. Finding those talented candidates took some work but wasn’t too difficult, Camarillo says.
A more diverse board is also more willing to consider new approaches, such as loan products tailored to ironworkers’ needs, CEO Teri Robinson says. Meanwhile, Ironworkers USA Federal staff has grown from five to 10 employees, allowing Robinson to recruit two bilingual Latino employees to boost engagement among new members.
“Because we’re progressive, our board is diverse enough to understand we need to move ahead as a credit union to survive,” she says.
To ensure that diversity continues, Camarillo plans to introduce a formal DEI policy for board adoption.
Too many organizations have employees who are more wary than welcoming to diverse populations, Camarillo says. “That attitude drives a lot of people away.”
NEXT: Aiming for lasting change
Aiming for lasting change
Many experts say DEI must start with the CEO, says Carlos Ruiz, board chair at Seattle Credit Union.
“But who does the CEO report to?” he asks. “And how many boards are well-versed in DEI topics?”
Without a deep understanding of DEI’s role and purpose, credit unions risk falling for the lure of achieving a quick win by “checking the box” to show they have diverse board members.
Tonita Webb, executive vice president/chief operating officer at the $910 million asset credit union, says lasting change instead relies on a long-term plan to educate staff and remake the board.
Seattle Credit Union began conversations about DEI seven years ago, and launched its plan about five years ago. Webb says the former City Employees Credit Union gained a state community charter in 1998.
“But that didn’t bring any diversity, so we knew we needed to change that,” Webb says.
Today, the credit union uses an experience matrix to review all the elements that comprise a qualified board member, including diverse demographic characteristics. “It’s a robust matrix,” Ruiz says. “We look and see where we need more expertise, voices, and perspective on the board.”
The result is a slate of strong candidates with “lived experiences” that help them ask tough questions about products and services.
Calling for courage
Becoming more diverse requires courage from executive staff and board members alike.
For example, the Seattle Credit Union board weathered criticism from members when it decided not to recommend board candidates for election at the 2018 annual meeting because the candidates didn’t match DEI goals.
“You have to go against the status quo, especially when you’re doing it when not everyone else is, and DEI is not the buzzword,” Webb says.
Ruiz adds credit unions must help board newcomers from diverse backgrounds fight the “imposter syndrome” that makes them feel unworthy of sharing their opinions.
Ruiz leads a consulting firm, Sidekick Consultants LLC, that provides strategic and operations consulting to nonprofit organizations.
“As board members, you have to push through the fears and say, ‘My voice is equal to everyone else’s voice,’ ” Ruiz says.
Board diversity has led Seattle Credit Union to introduce new products aimed at diverse member needs, including a bike loan, a renter’s loan, emergency microloans, and citizenship loans for up to $2,400. Loans designed for Muslim members charge only fees since their faith does not allow them to pay interest.
Walking in privilege
Webb says all credit union leaders—both employees and volunteers—likely benefited from some form of privilege. As a Black, heterosexual woman she faced professional challenges but says she had a relatively easy path to marriage and parenthood compared to people in the LGBTQ community.
“It’s important that all of us understand we have biases and we walk in privilege,” Webb says.
Recognizing that reality can help credit union boards and executives have meaningful conversations along their ongoing journey toward meeting member needs through greater DEI.
Ruiz hopes that in the years ahead, more credit unions will ask hard questions about why so few people of color are promoted to senior executive or CEO positions, or invited to join the board.
“If you’re not incorporating the board in these efforts, you’re going to have limited effects at best,” Ruiz says. “It’s where you’re truly creating opportunity within a diverse community.”