In the mid 1990’s, Navy FCU’s annual report theme was, “Our strength is Our Union.” Today’s message is “Members are Our Mission.”
Both ideas affirm a community’s collective effort to work together. The idea is as old as the preamble to the constitution, “We the People. . . in order to form a more perfect union . . .”
For 2022 that objective, could be the most important goal for the cooperative system. Before looking at this challenge another observation must be noted.
Incredible Two Years of Credit Union Performance
In 2020 and 2021, the credit union system recorded two of the most financially successful years in decades. The double-digit savings growth and continued member expansion were accomplished with zero insurance losses. The results were achieved despite the sharpest recession ever caused by the abrupt March 2020 national economic shutdown. And a pandemic that continues to cause disruption in every area of American life.
The cooperative system proved its resilience while responding to unprecedented member needs.
The 2022 Outlook
Projections for the New Year will include the present knowns: inflation, how long and how strong? Covid’s continued presence; the rise in interest rates; ongoing economic growth; cyber worries and crypto opportunities; the midterm elections; and international trade and political challenges.
In my view these are not the primary cooperative challenges. Rather the age-old tension between individual success and system interdependence will continue to play out.
For some there is no issue. Their view is that responsibility extends only to their charter. Whatever the management and board decide to do is their business only. That’s what the members “elected” them to do.
I believe rather that the system is interlinked in multiple ways. This means the reputation and example of one, whether good or ill, affects the perception of all.
The concept that coops take care of each other in times of need, includes both the member-owner and the multiple interlocking systems in which all credit unions operate.
Every credit union is open today because of a legacy handed to them and starting all the way back to the chartering date. These founders began with nothing but a vision of shared effort for the common good.
Some of today’s “leaders” have interpreted their responsibility the opposite of their founders, that is to return their members to their pre-chartering state. And on the way to charter dissolution, help themselves to some of the spoils.
The Cooperative Journey
Credit unions are now mid-way through the fifth chapter of their 112 year evolution. Each chapter takes about a generation, or twenty five years. The present chapter dates from 2009 with the Great Recession.
The journey has always included two challenges. One set is the externals of the economy, indifferent regulation, competition and ever present technology change. Credit unions have rarely been found wanting in meeting the realities of a market based system.
When failure occurs, it is the internal journeys where leaders become lost. The idea that every members’ bottom line is the credit union’s, is reduced to only the credit union’s bottom line. Fiduciary duty becomes a singular focus on financial success. And when that becomes too challenging, the result is to throw in the towel and turn the members’ future over to another organization with no relationship or history to them.
The 2022 challenge
I believe this year will be pivotal as to whether credit union leaders can once again put member well- being above institutional and personal self-interest. Can cooperatives restore their roots with the owners whose trust is their real strength, as Navy FCU proclaimed decades ago?
For it is We the People who are responsible for a more perfect union. That is true for both our civic politics as well as our financial cooperatives.