What Can Be Done about the Drought of New Credit Union Charters?

There are financial deserts in towns and cities across America; there is also an absence of new credit union charters.

Since December of 2016, the number of federally insured credit unions has fallen from 5,785 to 4.780, at yearend 2022.  This is a decline of over 165 charters per year.  In this same six years, 14 new charters were granted.

Expanding FOM’s to “underserved areas” or opening an out of area credit union branch, is not the same solution as a locally inspired and managed charter.

Obtaining a new charter has never been more difficult for interested groups. Through its insurance approval, NCUA has final say on all new applications whether for a federal or state charter.

Today, credit union startups are as rare as __________ (you fill in the blank).

At this week’s GAC convention an NCUA board member announced the agency’s latest new chartering enhancement: the provisional charter phase.  This approach does not address the fundamental charter barriers.

Could an example from the movement’s history suggest a solution?

The Chartering Record of the First Federal Regulator

Looking at the record of Claude Orchard  demonstrates what is possible for an individual government leader.   He was the first federal administrator/regulator managing a new bureau within the Farm Credit Administration to create a federal credit union system.  He was recruited for this startup role by Roy Bergengren, who along with Edward Filene, founded the credit union movement.

The story of how and why he was chosen is told here.   Bergengren nominated Orchard because he had “the proper credit union spirit.” This had been demonstrated by his efforts to charter over 70 de novo state credit unions for his employer Amour.

Orchard accepted this government role in the middle of the depression using borrowed FCA staff.  The state chartered system was the only model of how to create a federal option.  That experience and belief in the mission is what  Orchard brought to this new role.

Unlike the banking and S&L industry there was no insurance fund for credit union shares/savings.   The coop model was based on self-help, self-financing and self-governance.  Self-starters provided the human and social (trust) capital; no minimum financial capital was needed.  Credit unions tapped into the quintessential American entrepreneurial spirit to help others.

Orchard’s critical tenure as the first federal regulator is described  in a special NCUA 50th Anniversary Report published in 1984:

“He emphasized organizing as much as supervision. ‘I think in general we tried in the beginning to avoid paperwork because it seemed to me like that was a waster of effort.  After all what we were out for was to get some charters and get some organizational work done.’

When Mr. Orchard stepped down in in 1953, federal credit unions numbered over 6,500.   During his 19 year he espoused a passionate belief in the ideals of creditunionism.  ‘It seems to me that we have here a tool. If it can be made to really be responsive and to really be, in the end, under the control of the members, it can teach people in this country something about democracy which could be taught in no other way.

Deane Gannon, his successor at the Bureau of Federal Credit Unions said to Mr. Orchard on the 30th anniversary of the Federal Credit Union Act, ‘If it hadn’t been for you none of us would be here to celebrate anything.‘”

That last observation echoes today.   How many charters will be left to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the FCU Act in 2034?

Alternatives  Are  Springing Up

For the credit union movement to remain relevant it will require modern day Claude Orchards. These are leaders who believe in creditunionism.  And possess the passion to encourage new entrants to join the movement.

Regulatory process or policy improvements may help.  But the real shortfall is leadership committed to expanding credit union options.

To address the continuing financial inequities throughout American communities, alternative solutions are being created.  Many of these startups are outside the purview of banking regulators.

These community focused lenders are listed in  Inclusiv’s 2022 CDFI Program Aware Book.  The firm introduces its role with these words:

Access to affordable financial products and services is a staple of economically sound communities. Yet at least one quarter of American households do not have bank accounts or rely on costly payday lenders and check-cashing outlets.

In recent years, the lack of access to capital investments for small businesses and other critical community development projects has also led to increased need for alternative and reliable sources of financing.

Mission-driven organizations called Community Development Financial Institutions–or CDFIs–fill these gaps by offering affordable financial products and services that meet the unique needs of economically underserved communities.

Through awards and trainings, the Community Development Financial Institutions Program (CDFI Program) invests in and builds the capacity of CDFIs, empowering them to grow, achieve organizational sustainability, and contribute to the revitalization of their communities.

Of the total $199.4 million awarded to 435 organizations, only 176 or 40% were to credit unions.  The rest of the field included 213 local loan funds, 43  banks and 3 venture capital firms.

Without credit union charters, alternative organizations will be created to serve individuals and their communities.   These lenders may not put credit unions out of business, but will  attract the entrepreneurs that would have  added critical momentum to the cooperative system.

Credit unions can qualify for CDFI status and grants.   But Inclusiv has a much broader vision for implementing Claude Orchard’s  playbook.

In their listing of 2022 total awards and grants, every amount of over $1.0 million went to an organization that was not a credit union.  A few were banks, but most were de novo local community lenders or venture capital firms.

Without credit union options, civic motivated entrepreneurs will seek other solutions, and slowly replace credit union’s role.

Today it is Inclusiv carrying out Orchard’s vision.

Should NCUA delegate its chartering function to those who have “the proper spirit” to secure credit unions’ future?

It will also result in “teaching people in this country something about democracy which could be taught in no other way.”

  Whose Voices Should Shape SECU’s Future (Part III)

The author of a lengthy Business Journal article on SECU’s competing future visions wrote a brief follow up to his original story that began:

The North Carolina State Employees’ Credit Union is such an integral part of our state that it’s often taken for granted.

There’s nothing like it across the nation, I learned, while studying the $53 billion dollar enterprise for a story in the February Business North Carolina. In the ninth-most populous state, SECU dwarfs peers nationally other than the national Navy Federal Credit Union. . .SECU is a maverick.

When viewed in a broader context, this local controversy is more than competing approaches to a business model.

In many large credit unions today there is a growing distance between member priorities and institutional ambitions.  A number of credit union leaders aspire to an ever-expanding role in the financial services marketplace.  Organic growth is insufficient, too slow.  Executive strategies such as whole bank purchase and aggressive courting of merger partners everywhere are embraced, two initiatives often enabled by external sources of capital.

Members become merely the means to further institutional prominence.   The rhetoric continues about serving members, but often these expansion efforts  offer little or no member benefit.

There is a parallel example in current religious practice.  Some well-known and successful preachers promote faith with a vision of what is called the “prosperity gospel.”  It is little more than capitalism in ecclesiastical garments.   The equivalent happening in credit unions is full out banking strategies dressed in cooperative clothing.

There is a spreading “cooperative anemia” circulating in the credit union system.  Its basic symptom is the separation of institutional priorities from members well-being.

A Model that Transcends

The SECU which Jim Hayes joined as a leader in 2021 had been able to transcend these constant temptations to alter cooperative design into a proto-banking model.   Instead it became increasingly viewed as a “maverick” by credit unions.

The persons who invested most of their professional lives building this contrarian approach developed a certain stubbornness.  They both authored the effort and produced unprecedented results.  They continue to have a sense of stewardship, even as they become “just a member. “ As one writer has observed  “some of the best founders are difficult people.”

When institutional leadership is transferred to managers in today’s selfie world, there is an understandable perception that “me” is being put in front of membership.

A Path Forward: Investing in Members’ Ownership Responsibilities

Leadership of any institution is first and foremost a political task, not a business model problem. The concerns about changes in business direction, labelled “rumbles” by SECU staffer, have now morphed into public and opposing camps.

One side is represented by a person who self describes as “often wrong, but never in doubt.”  The other camp has retreated to their bunkers of incumbency, and adopted a tactic I call “brute legalism.”  This means “we’re in charge (with member approval), so we don’t have to accommodate contrary points of view.”

The coop process for resolving this debate is supposed to be democratic. An autocratic rejection of member concerns, may lead to increasing displays of public opposition.  It certainly makes CEO Jim Hayes’ leadership much harder.

If the separation of credit unions and member priorities is the core of the problem, then embracing the owners’ democratic engagement may be the solution.

Cooperative democracy is more than electing directors at the annual meeting.  Often this voting function has been reduced to an administrative formality as nominations by the incumbents just match the number of open seats.

Democracy depends on choice.  Real choice is more than putting more names on the ballot.  It requires continuous transparency, open communication, and ongoing dialogue with every internal and external level of the organization. This habit is more than press releases or marketing messages.

Cooperative democratic design is more than good governance, that is accountability to the owners. It is how trust and confidence in the leaders’ decisions are created.

The motions at the 85th Annual meeting were unusual but a proper exercise of member-owner rights. It has opened up conversations about decisions that have major member impact but little visibility.

Blaine’s motions were an act of courage and member duty.  He took the step of “walking to the front of the line” to find out who might be with him.  There is no more democratic act than members speaking out.

A Democratic Ampersand

Cooperative design is at its strongest when an ampersand is added to the member & owner role.  Otherwise the owners end up as being viewed as just customers.  Keep them satisfied, find more like them, and allow the “elected” leaders to shape the credit union’s future.

Many credit union managers believe they choose their members, especially encouraged by the regulatory concept of the common bond.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is the members who choose to join, support, or leave the coop.

In the American economy, it is called “consumer sovereignty.”

Member loyalty cannot be acquired in a merger or bank purchase.  That just cheapens any relationship.  Rather it is hard earned over generations.  When well done, the result creates the most important business and political advantage a movement could want.

A Public Purpose

Coop democracy is more than a process for accountability and acknowledging the owners’ roles.   It is core to credit union’s purpose.   That purpose is extending economic opportunity for all Americans, especially those at the mercy of for-profit providers.

Economic equality is vital to the continuation of the capitalist system. It is critical that all striving for financial security ( especially those living paycheck to paycheck) can have an institutional option that is fair and just, not discriminatory, in their transactions.

SECU’s board and leadership are in a unique moment for affirming the credit union’s continued commitment to furthering America’s promise of economic justice. This credit union will be fair to all who join SECU as members-owners.

Achieving that outcome will require more conversations and crafting additional business  options.  Without this effort member uncertainty and market forces will slowly erode the credit union’s position in its key markets and nationally.

A lesson from events to date is that sometimes it takes heading in the wrong direction in order to find the right one. Now is the time for SECU to make real the promises of coop democracy–in multiple ways.

No one has a monopoly on insight.  Being a maverick is tougher than jumping into the financial mainstream. Old and new members sitting down together offers a better chance of SECU sustaining its transcendent credit union performance.

As Robert Frost might counsel in the final verse of The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference