Advocacy Puts Board Members on Offense

‘Don’t underestimate the influence you have.’

July 16, 2014

Advocacy Board

From left: Mollie Bell, Filene Research Insitute; John Sackett, Royal CU; Jean Peterson, Aberdeen FCU; and Brad Douglas, CommunityAmerica CU.

Jean Peterson embraces an idea espoused by Harriet May, retired CEO of GECU in El Paso, Texas, and former CUNA Board chair: It’s time to stop living in fear of taxation and regulation and start promoting, rather than defending, credit unions.

This approach has served Peterson well in the wake of recent efforts by bankers in South Dakota to spread anti-credit union messages locally.

Peterson, vice chair of Aberdeen (S.D.) Federal Credit Union, participated in a panel discussion called “The Path to a Fully Engaged Board” during the America’s Credit Union Conference in San Francisco.

The state’s banking industry has been urging county commissioners, local school boards, and city councils statewide to pass resolutions supporting the removal of credit unions’ tax exemption—under the guise of raising local tax revenues for schools and other purposes.

“We need to be ready for what’s coming,” said Peterson, who warns that this campaign likely will spread to other states. “Be prepared to talk to local officials to make sure they understand the credit union difference.”

In addition to educating local officials about the credit union difference, Aberdeen Federal is training volunteers and staff to do “30-second commercials about what makes our credit union different,” Peterson said.

It also has on hand “benefits of membership” information that shows how much the credit union saves members each year in the form of lower rates and fees compared to local banks.

“We need to connect with local officials, as well as state and national legislators, to provide this information,” Peterson said.

Credit union board members are uniquely suited to political advocacy largely because they’re volunteers, said Brad Douglas, board chairman for CommunityAmerica Credit Union in Lenexa, Kan.

“You have big power as individuals—you’re a constituent to your representatives,” he told the credit union directors in attendance. “Your comments carry more weight because you’re a volunteer. Don’t underestimate the influence you have.”

Credit unions have substantial grassroots power, Douglas added. He encouraged attendees to get involved in advocacy by sending letters to legislators and speaking to community groups about credit union issues.

“It’s time to get the word out,” he said. “You are the power of our industry.”

Credit unions should make advocacy part of directors’ job descriptions and measure their progress in this area, CUNA Chairman Dennis Pierce said from the audience.

“If advocacy isn’t on the list, it’s too easy to leave behind,” said Pierce, who’s also CEO of CommunityAmerica Credit Union. “Advocacy is an investment in our future.”

Unfortunately, few credit unions take full advantage of their volunteers for advocacy. According to a CUNA white paper, the CEO is the primary person responsible for coordinating advocacy activities at 71% of credit unions, and 17% of credit unions give that responsibility to a management person.

Only 3% of credit unions have board members or other volunteers in charge of advocacy. “That’s disturbing,” says John Sackett, board treasurer at Royal Credit Union in Eau Claire, Wis., and chairman of CUNA’s Volunteer Leadership Committee. “We can’t afford not to be involved.”

Royal Credit Union has a board advocacy committee through which it connects with state and national legislators. Now, legislators’ staff will contact him on issues they’re working on—and Sackett even sponsored Wisconsin’s governor at his trapshooting club.

“That doesn’t happen automatically,” Sackett says. “It takes work, but [legislators] know who we are.”

Sackett also reminds legislators of credit unions’ grassroots power. “Reaching 100 million members nationally is impressive,” Sackett said. “But I remind legislators that 157,000 of them are their constituents. That carries a lot of weight.”