CU Effect: CU1 helps community far, wide discover fin. fitness

April 28, 2015
ANCHORAGE (4/29/15)--As National Financial Literacy Month winds down, Credit Union 1 of Anchorage, Alaska, provides an example of how credit unions move beyond their memberships when it comes to serving their communities.

Several years ago, the collections department at Credit Union 1 noticed many members they came in contact with lacked fundamental financial knowledge.

"One of the most important aspects of the classes are: We don't want it to feel like a sales pitch. We're not doing this to make a push for new members, and we don't push attendees into joining," Ashley Brinkman, communications manager for Credit Union 1, told News Now. "We just want people to understand how banking works in an environment with as little pressure as possible, since it can be a scary topic."

The Discover Fitness classes are offered in-person and online, though Credit Union 1 has made an effort to keep the differences between the two at a minimum.

"For our online version, you'll use Skype to log in, and there will be materials presented. But because we know that no one wants to listen to a PowerPoint, there is always a live person right there," Brinkman said. "If everything is working, we don't have a problem minimizing the regular part of the presentations and just doing a more informational chat back and forth. We want it to be friendly and engaging."

The online version of the classes allows different populations that might be embarrassed to seek financial help, Brinkman added.

The state's geography and makeup can also make it difficult to reach different populations. According to Brinkman, many unbanked communities, as well as Native Alaskan communities, have limited or no access to the Internet. That, combined with language and cultural differences, can make it difficult to form a trusting relationship between a community and a financial institution, but Credit Union 1 has taken a proactive approach.

Click to view larger imageA screencap from one of Credit Union 1's online financial literacy classes, which are conducted with members and nonmembers across Alaska. (Credit Union 1 Graphic)
Since 2012, it has hosted classes in some of its remote branches in communities such as Nome, Kodiak and Ketchikan, which are accessible only by boat or air, and providing translators where needed.

Topics covered by the program include home buying (led by a real estate loan underwriter), identity theft (run by an information technology professional), budgeting and credit. Brinkman herself teaches the "core" class, which features a rundown of the basic information needed to design a budget and stick to it.

The socioeconomic climate in Alaska varies from many other states, in that many industries are largely seasonal, which Brinkman said can create a cycle of mountains and valleys in household budgets.

"We've been fortunate enough to teach to folks who mine for gold, folks who work in the oil fields, men and women who fish commercially and those who belong to labor unions," Brinkman said. "More and more we've been able to teach them how to budget for an entire year or give them the tools they need to effectively save and manage their money to help them weather those 'valleys' a little better." 

Credit Union 1 has also been reaching out to employees of Alaskan Native corporations that distribute dividends that can be tens of thousands of dollars per recipient.

"We've been able to have real conversations with people about saving, setting money away for taxes and stretching that money as far as it can go in the very expensive remote villages," Brinkman said.

Click to view larger image Students at an in-person session of Credit Union 1's Discover Financial Fitness program learn about keeping to a budget and managing their money in a smarter way. (Credit Union 1 Photo)
Credit Union 1 has also been able to use the annual $1,000 to $2,000 dividend check each Alaskan gets from the Alaska Permanent Fund as a jumping-off point to start a conversation about financial literacy. The fund is paid to full-time residents as a share from oil and other state revenues.

Brinkman says Credit Union 1 has received "overwhelmingly positive" feedback so far and is reaching out to offer classes to as many local groups as possible. It recently partnered with NeighborWorks Anchorage, a local group connecting people with affordable housing, to host a "Smarter Money" class.

"Any group that's interested, we're glad to come. Whether it's young professionals, nonprofits, schools or community groups, we'll be there," Brinkman said.

Credit Union 1 is hoping to tailor the program in the near future to high school and college students, since there is no state personal finance requirement for graduation in Alaska.

"The idea for this class is to be a pre-emptive strike: Teach kids what they should know before they get in trouble, before they're targeted by predatory lenders, before they buy a car or home they can't afford," Brinkman said.

The program is just one part of Credit Union 1's outreach to those who lack access to basic financial services. In 2010 it opened a branch in an underbanked area where no financial institution had been for more than 25 years.

Credit Union 1 also maintains a blog that is updated regularly with financial tips and offers a number of calculator tools to help members decide what kind of payments they can afford, as well as manage debt and savings.

(This story is part of News Now's continuing series, "The CU Effect," which gives readers a fresh and in-depth look at how credit unions make a difference in the world every day. Look for the next installment May 13.)