The NAFCU-CUNA Merger and Cooperative Democracy

(Case study 2 of 3 on cooperative democracy)

There may be no more critical decision this year for credit unions than the voting now underway to merge NAFCU into CUNA.

Voting is the moment when the cooperative democratic process is most potent. One member, one vote regardless of asset size or other claims to influence.

While both trade organization’s members will vote, the choice that  really matters is what NAFCU  voters decide.  Their approval requires a two-thirds majority to dissolve the trade group.

What NAFCU members choose will affect every credit union.  Perhaps far into the future.

With NAFCU CEO Berger announcing his retirement, directors from both firms already working on transition plans, staffs  briefed on their future and joint leadership meetings to promote a single outcome, is this decision already a done deal?  Does voting matter?  If NAFCU members do not approve, is there a plan B for their organization?

Credit Union Trades Evolve with the Cooperative System

From the initial state leagues and Filene/Bergengren’s Credit Union Extension Bureau, collaborative trade support has evolved.  CUNA and NAFCU’s priorities have closely aligned with the dual chartering system.  CUNA focused on state leagues and regulations from its Madison WI headquarters and NAFCU the federal charter track from it’s sole DC office.  (See NAFCU’s 1967 founding statement at the end of this post.)

CUNA moved its primary leadership to DC in the 1990’s when it selected Dan Mica, a former congressman as its CEO. Has the time come when these different histories and organizational focus should combine?

This short summary by Berger presents the core merger rationale:  We’ve heard from many of you over the years about the need to better align our advocacy, reduce redundancies in the events and trainings we offer, and work together to strengthen the industry.

The (new) organization will be able to dedicate more resources to the areas that matter most to you. It will be the best of both CUNA and NAFCU – strategic, decisive, cost and value conscious, and responsive.

The Diverse Cooperative Model

Credit unions are not a monolithic system.  The genius of cooperative design is that it supports many different business models.   The  $ 15.5 billion Alliant Credit Union’s digital only model is the antithesis of the $5 million Sixth Avenue Baptist FCU (founded in 1963 in Birmingham AL) as described in this CUES article.

Navy FCU with over $155 billion in assets may have the same member-focused mission as the CDFI Holy Rosary Credit Union in Kansas City.  But their national representation needs are very different.

The two trades have addressed differing priorities when representing their members.  NAFCU has been more critical of NCUA spending, the TCCUSF merger and defending the unique 1% NCUSIF cooperative funding model.  CUNA and the leagues have defended the state insurance alternative, more open FOM approaches and even the purchase of banks, the vast majority completed by state charters.

Because NAFCU is smaller with a single organizational presence it has had to “try harder” at times.   When I asked the CEO of a state charter why the credit union belonged to both organizations, he replied: “The NAFCU team is very responsive and discounted our dues. They also have some great training programs and better conferences.”

At the NAFCU Congressional Caucus in DC this week, CEO Nussel described CUNA’s advantage as its “industrial strength” and NAFCU’s as being “more intimate.”

A key question is whether the credit union system is better off with a monopoly of national representation, or whether choice can be more effective for the system’s diverse business priorities?  Is it better to have a single unified voice or the option of a more accessible DC relationship?

Without  alternatives, the diverse needs of credit unions represented by  one organization could quickly follow the path of least resistance.   Instead of promoting more opportunities  for member solutions, lobbying protects the status quo: defeating tax threats, stopping Durbin reforms, limiting CFPB jurisdiction, responding to bank criticisms and challenging regulatory actions that enhance member transparency.

There Is No Easy Answer

This democratic merger vote matters.   The outcome will affect the future of advocacy in Washington for all credit unions.

A merger may resolve the future of NAFCU, but it could also create a new set of challenges.  Without alternatives large credit unions may decide to undertake their own DC representation, which several have done in the past.

Here is just one of many courses that help organizations navigate their DC interests: Decoding D.C.: Policy, Power, and People.

If the decision is indeed still open for your credit union,  consider critical questions before voting.   These could include:

  1. What do I rely on my trade organization participation and investment to yield?
  2. What does my community need from our cooperatives empowered by this combined structure and from the people attracted to these careers?
  3. Credit unions as cooperative organizations are most often local, personal, and vested in action – will this merger dilute or add to these capabilities?

And, does NAFCU have a Plan B?

Editor’s Note: NAFCU’s founding description from its website

In 1967, a group of hard-charging credit union CEOs pushed the envelope. They had to grow, and they needed an association that would help. So they created NAFCU–an aggressive association forged with equal parts expertise, political savvy and boldness.

Since its founding, our small, but agile association has been a highly effective advocate for credit unions at the federal level. We were the first credit union trade association to set up shop in the Washington D.C. area, and we’ve crossed many milestones since our first major victory in 1970, when the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) was enacted.

We were the sole (and successful) defender of the NCUSIF in the early 1990s when regulators and the White House were advocating for major change to it, and we were the only trade association to oppose the CFPB’s authority over credit unions when the agency was formed (a stance we keep to this day as we fight to reduce the agency’s burdensome impact on credit unions).

2 Replies to “The NAFCU-CUNA Merger and Cooperative Democracy”

  1. For me it is to get people to see past the transaction – everyone assumes that the merger is the best of a failed or less than great situation and must be a fix. So they leave the transaction to the teams in the moment.

    But the reality is the post merger organization is where people should focus, predict, and interact with.

    In this situation we are not talking about something we all own – we are talking about a vendor. A face selling smiles in a PR and political arena.

    These two have both wore out their welcome – time to discount their efforts and build a new face for what we face. A force, not a facade.

    So to get people interested in this merger is like getting people interested in syndicated reruns short on new moments – what we need is more people demanding a new grand opening of a sitcom with a future.

  2. My long-term basic strategic thinking has been for many years.‘the value of differentiations’and in having everything possible working for us (saws, hammers, screwdrivers, and trucks). Big and small multiple tools of all kinds. CUNA and NAFCU were different tools–resources, talents, focus, etc.. I Valued each and think a merger is a loss for Credit Unions.

    Usually thinking that you’re going to get more with less is a pretty poor bet.

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