Back in 1986, I got my first credit card from Lake County Educational Credit Union. I used it throughout college and when I needed car loans, while I was in school, the credit union was there. Eventually, around 1994, I ran for the board of directors, was elected and served until 1998 when I joined WWR. That move catapulted me into the best job of my life: getting to serve credit unions as their attorney. Credit union people, like the industry they serve are down to earth and some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Hokey? Yes, but as a volunteer and then as counsel, I am privileged to be involved with the movement.
Last year, dire predictions were in the air. Credit unions may decline in number by 50% and so on. Now, amazingly, and through the most unlikely series of events, people are flocking to credit unions again. Who would have thought that as a side effect of the Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act that some banks would raise debit card fees and that this would cause consumers to vote with their feet and join credit unions. I certainly would not have guessed that in a million years. And yet, here we are.
But grass roots efforts are about as crunchy credit union as you can get. Remember 1151? Pro credit union folks marched on Washington and change happened. Today’s challenges are a whole lot more amorphous, but at the end of the day, the message of people helping people hits a chord. When I speak before credit union audiences, I always try to be positive and the message lately has been that credit unions grew dramatically around the time of the Depression. It’s kind of sad when a reference to the Depression is supposed to be upbeat!
But it’s not hard to connect the idea that not-for-profit cooperatives that pool member money for member loans while giving a voice to members is appealing. It’s not much of a leap to see the appeal of a financial institution where member service is not only important, but it’s in the DNA of the organization.
What do I owe the credit union movement? Nothing short of everything I have. Maybe credit unions don’t always have the latest bells and whistles that multinational conglomerates can muster, but you can always look at a credit union balance sheet and understand what’s going on. Moreover, even with the largest credit unions you can understand who they serve, where they came from and what their priorities are. Member service is always there because, by definition, it’s the member’s money and it’s the member’s credit union. This year, for the first time in a few years, credit unions really do have something to look forward to: rediscovery by the people they were made to serve.