By Andrew C. Voorhees, Attorney
In a down economy, many businesses and financial institutions are forced to make difficult decisions to cuts costs and maintain profitability. For credit unions, one of those difficult decisions is whether to continue to participate in local or national trade associations. An examination of the value a trade association provides can determine whether it is a worthwhile expense.
Trade associations can provide representative and other collective products and services to credit unions in their common interests. In return for periodic dues and/or fees, trade associations offer networking, training, educational programs, advice and publications. Also, trade associations are typically non-profit organizations with a governing body made up of elected representatives from its members.
However, one of a trade association’s main functions is as a representative body. In this capacity, a trade association advances the collective view and position of its members to government departments, agencies, regulators and legislators. It also communicates the collective view and position to the media and other opinion-makers.
Detractors may cite that the lobbying functions provided by trade associations can now be accomplished by the member credit unions directly. The rise of social media has provided almost everyone with a forum to make their views known and work to advance their own agendas. Opponents may cite these low-cost grass roots efforts, as well as a lack of measurable results, as a viable alternative to paying periodic fees to a trade association.
However, trade associations provide credit unions with a more focused and effective lobbying effort than what would be accomplished on a piecemeal basis. Local credit unions may be too small to effectively lobby on a federal or state basis. As such, membership in a trade association can provide more leverage to have their voices heard in Washington. Trade associations can also provide advocates to carry the message to lawmakers and policymakers, as well as provide legislation and regulation analysis and gain consensus as to the direction of the industry.
In order to increase its value in the digital age, trade associations should make use of social media and other digital means to further connect with their members’ opinions and directions for the industry on a grass roots level. The largest credit union trade association is the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) based in Washington D.C. and Wisconsin, which claims 90% of credit unions as members. A review of their website (cuna.org) reveals a “Grassroots Action Center” to allow its members to take an active role in lobbying on current issues. The mechanism even allows for members to send correspondence to legislators electronically on various pending issues. As such, CUNA provides both a unified voice for the direction of the industry, while at the same time providing its members the means to lobby on a grass roots level.
While the fees required for membership with a trade association may be significant in the current economy, trade associations still provide value to credit unions – through networking, education, and training. They provide low-cost marketing opportunities to better connect with future customers. Most importantly, they provide a unified and focused lobbying effort for the industry as a whole. So long as trade associations continue to evolve and make use of the electronic grass-roots lobbying tools that have recently become prevalent, trade associations should continue to provide value to its members.