The Key to Credit Unions’ Future: “Trust Each Other”

Three factors must combine to sustain a unique credit union system:

  1. Belief in the innovative power of cooperative design;
  2. Leaders with vision to sustain cooperative purpose;
  3. Effective governance centered on the roles of member-owners.

This last characteristic often gets short shrift. Governance is usually thought of in terms of board effectiveness. That is one element. But in my view it is not the most important.

Effective governance must put the member-owner at the center of the process if it is to inspire the other two factors of cooperative uniqueness,

In for-profit firms, the primary performance driver maximizing shareholder wealth. While many institutions may profess a wider mission, market realities sooner or later come back to this singular focus.

In credit unions, the vital role of the member-owner is often relegated to that of a “satisfied customer.” CEOs and boards are wary of member involvement beyond token ratification of the board’s election at the required annual meeting.

Without stimulating member awareness and involvement, the unique cooperative model can quickly run off the rails. Boards become closed shops. Directors serve for decades. Infrequent vacancies are filled with familiar colleagues.

This isolation from the members turns the credit union into an institution where financial performance is the primary success factor. “Mission” becomes a special project or a PR effort.

Examiners reinforce this focus. I have yet to see an exam that assesses cooperative contributions. This does not mean purpose is dead; it just suggests it is uniformed by continuous member engagement.

Member-Owner Participation as an Essential Cooperative Process

An immediate way to start engagement is to treat members as interested owners. One way is publishing the quarterly financial outcomes on the web, and distributing them digitally, with a full discussion of what they mean.

After every calendar quarter, there is not a day that goes by without public companies, especially financial firms, announcing quarterly earnings, the reasons therefore, and their outlook . In credit unions, which must file financial call reports quarterly, there is comparatively total silence. Until some reporter seeks out the 5300 report for an article.

I have found one example of this SOP-private-company process in credit unions. When I asked the CEO why he sent a quarterly letter with full financials and commentary he replied:

  • We’ve reported to our member-owners every 90 days for the last 20 years. That is something we believe all coops should do.
  • We describe how we are responding to current events; e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic, both financially and operationally.
  • The report is for personnel and team building, not a compliance requirement designed from a regulator’s point of view.
  • Numbers are the minimum baseline in relating to owners – the culture and heart of who we are is the relationship with our “shareholders.”

He wrote: “Member involvement is a real living tactic for us… reach for shared strategic hopes is a win-win model for every stakeholder. We see each other, talk to each other, and trust each other.”

A Basic Step in Real Democratic Governance

This one tactic is an easy first step for every credit union to take. It would begin to broaden the concept of cooperative governance with the constituency that matters the most: the member-owner. Most importantly, it would show “we trust each other.”

One Reply to “The Key to Credit Unions’ Future: “Trust Each Other””

  1. I have tried to find but have not come across any research looking into whether having contested board elections has an impact on the performance of a credit union. Some credit unions that have them seem to do just fine. Yet if I’ve understood correctly they are rare in US credit unions. Imagine if only 10% of members of US credit unions would vote – that would be a massive democratic exercise of over 10 million Americans. That would demonstrate the cooperative difference to the mass membership in a way no advertising campaign can.

    In Finland, with a population 5.5 million, the largest grocery chain is a cooperative owned by 2.4 million people and the most used bank is the OP cooperative, owned by 2 million people. 15%-25% of the members vote in the *largest* branch of these cooperatives. The US credit unions would mobilise over a million Americans for every 1% of increase in voter participation. Let’s not underestimate the impact of such a mass mobilisation.

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