WOCCU 101: Our Passion Is the Member

New CEO reflects on the organization’s 40 years of learning and growing.

October 24, 2011

This year, as we celebrate 40 years of World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), I ask, “What are the lessons we have learned?”

Our credit union values and our cooperative model fit almost any country and any culture.

What do credit union members all around the world want? They want to feed their families and put roofs over their heads. They want their children to have a good education and to have more prosperous lives than they had themselves.

Credit unions help members achieve these goals. We have more in common than we have in contrast.

Credit unions not only finance economic reconstruction, they are part of the social fabric that pulls people together and gets them working with one another again.

I began with WOCCU many years ago in Central America, during a time of civil conflict. When conflict happens, people find refuge in their credit unions. When the conflict ends, people come together within the credit unions to restart their local economies. Credit unions finance the local markets and the farmers so they can provide for their families. We saw this happen in Colombia and Rwanda. We see it today in Afghanistan.

When bad things happen, credit unions step in and provide relief to those affected.

Bad things happen but two things remain constant during a crisis: When disaster strikes, it is the poor who suffer the most and it is credit unions that step forward first to provide food, water, shelter, and blankets.

It is always inspiring to see how the international credit union movement contributes to help credit unions in the affected countries rebuild, repair, and do what it takes to help members get back on their feet. We saw this happen with the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and with the earthquake in Haiti last year.

Part of credit unions’ market advantage is the ability to collaborate effectively to achieve scale and efficiencies.

Credit unions in country after country face reduced margins and increasing regulatory compliance costs. To offer more competitive products, credit unions need greater scale and access to technology.

Credit unions find answers in mergers or in collaboration. The standardization and sharing of business processes reduce the costs of redundant business systems across credit unions. Some credit union systems now share back-office systems.

In collaborating, credit unions face a trade-off between centralized efficiencies and local entrepreneurship. We find models where credit unions successfully manage this trade-off. In Brazil, credit unions share a common brand and back-office system, enabling them to serve small farmers whom others cannot serve profitably. In Poland, credit unions share administrative and marketing systems so that even the smallest of them can compete aggressively in the marketplace.

Technology has changed the way members access their money and payment systems.

Our challenge and opportunity today is finding new ways to take the credit unions to the members.

Technology changes how financial services are delivered. Instead of waiting for members to come to their credit unions, we take the credit unions to the members where they live and work. In Mexico, credit unions send officers to remote communities with PDAs and handheld printers to collect savings deposits and loan payments, and to disburse loans. In some countries, mobile phones have become electronic wallets, and allow members to transact business directly with their credit unions.

We work in an industry and a movement of constant change, yet our credit union values remain constant. We exist for our members and for their economic development no matter where they live. Our passion is the member.

BRIAN BRANCH is WOCCU’s president/CEO.