On the Fire Line-Again

Seeing the flames on the news ravaging the New Mexico countryside and park forests  is an unusual event for this scale of catastrophe. Sudden and destructive;  no prior notice.

This brief update yesterday is from Denise Wymore, a coop evangelist:

“It’s been over a decade since New Mexico has experienced a major wildfire.

In June of 2011, a wildfire that would consume over 155,000 acres in New Mexico erupted.  The Las Conchas Fire began around 1pm on June 26, when a gust of wind blew a 75 foot tall aspen into a power line. From that ridge top began the largest wildfire ever in New Mexico. During the first 14 hours, the fire raced eastward, consuming more than 43,000 acres (an acre per second) of forest and destroying dozens of homes.

Today a disaster of similar scope is occurring. The Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fires have combined – burning over 60,000 acres in Northern New Mexico. Today it is only 12% contained with 817 personnel. The cause is unknown at this time.

The three employees of Rincones Presbyterian Credit Union, $5.45 million in assets providing financial services to almost 300 members, in and around Chacon, New Mexico had to evacuate its sole branch location yesterday.

Guadalupe Credit Union, founded in 1948 by Father Ed McCarthy to serve the parishioners of Guadalupe Church in Santa Fe, NM stepped up. They offered space for the staff of Rincones Presbyterian in their Taos and Las Vegas, NM locations.

Remembering a Prior Emergency

This isn’t the first time credit unions in New Mexico have helped each other during wildfires. The  Las Conchas Fire in 2011 caused the entire town of Los Alamos to evacuate for a week.

The Los Alamos School Employees Credit Union was able to “keep their doors open” with the help of Del Norte Credit Union in Santa Fe. Del Norte (DNCU) served the Los Alamos National Laboratory Employees. Matt Schmidt, Los Alamos School Employees CU CEO remembers his relocation at that time:

Del Norte provided a conference room off the main lobby to setup our servers, computers and printers.  Kim Currie with DNCU met me after hours to open the branch doors and help unload our office equipment. My dog, also an evacuee, watched from the truck.   That moment personified the meaning of “credit union movement.” I felt supported and cared for in a time when the future was uncertain.”

To assist  credit unions like Rincones maintain member service, contact Denise Wymore, Marketing Manger, Qcash Financial at 503-805-4424, or dwymore@qcashfinancial.com.





A Person for the Ages

As long as there are credit unions,  persons of incredible talent, generosity and conviction will be drawn to leadership roles.  An example of this cooperative character is Marvel Eberhahn of Community Credit Union, New Rockford, North Dakota.

At her retirement celebration in December 2016 CU Today wrote a profile of her six-decade career as CEO.

Accompanying the story was an 8-minute video that shows the North Dakota setting and an extended interview with Eberhahn.   The video captures her personality formed by the prairie farmland which the credit union served.    The words demonstrate her spirit, practicality and love of community.

Her performance expectation for the credit union was straightforward:  “If we can’t be different, why are we here.”

Watch the video.  It provides  examples for how she implemented this belief, from saving a WW II veteran from a bank’s equipment foreclosure to keeping farmland in the family.

When she left her CEO role, the credit union was $!66 million in assets, a 9,000% growth from the $18,000 when she assumed her role.  Today Community is $192 million with three branches serving almost 5,000 members.

Here is the CU Today story, used with permission:

NEW ROCKFORD, N.D.–For the first time in 65 years, Community Credit Union here is preparing for a new CEO.

But before that happens, a new video shares Marvel Ebenhahn’s extraordinary history in credit unions, of days when the “credit union” was a filing cabinet, of difficult times trying to hold the family farm together, of tough times in a tough place, and through it all, of becoming an indispensable part of a community and overseeing 9,000% growth.

Ebenhahn will be retiring effective Jan. 1, 2017, after more than six decades on the job. Barb Messner, who is currently the CU’s operations manager, will take over as the second president in the credit union’s history.

Ebenhahn, however, is not fully retiring, and will be staying on at the credit union in an advisory capacity while also working as a loan officer with a less demanding schedule, which will allow her to spend more time at her retirement home in Arizona, according to the Credit Union Association of the Dakotas.

Few people in credit unions have ever overseen the kind of asset growth that Ebenhahn has seen during her career. When Ebenhahn joined the credit union, which serves rural Eddy County, N.D., it had $18,000 in assets and 250 members. Today it has $165 million in assets and nearly 6,000 members.

Founded in 1942, what was once operated out of a filing cabinet in the corner of a farm cooperative store now has three branches. Ebenhahn joined the CU in 1952 when it was known as Eddy County FCU.

“Marvel has been a mentor and inspiration for many credit union leaders throughout the decades here in North Dakota,” stated Jeff Olson, president/CEO of the Credit Union Association of the Dakotas (CUAD), in a statement.  “Not only does she embody the cooperative spirit of putting members first, she really epitomizes our wonderful, traditional ‘small town’ rural values of faith, family, community, and hard work,” he continued.

Unique & Inspiring

To illustrate what it is calling a “unique and inspiring story,” the Credit Union Association of the Dakotas has created a short documentary video that records in Ebenhahn’s own voice, the evolution of the credit union and the community.

“I think’s a safe bet that there aren’t very many credit union CEOs anywhere today that can boast a 9,000% increase in assets or a 2,000% increase in membership in their career,” remarked Olson, who’s voice provided the narration on the video.  “Nor can many match a span of 65 years of helping so many people in a small rural community.”

Marvel’s father was one of the original founders of the credit union, and she grew up with first-hand knowledge of the cooperative principals, the CUAD noted. Established in 1942, from its humble beginnings serving members of the Farmers Union Co-Op, the credit union evolved to a community charter so it could serve anyone who lived within a 50-mile radius of the town of New Rockford.  In 1962, 10 years after Ebenhahn joined the CU, it had grown to the point of needing its own building.

“The credit union soon gained a reputation for helping people that the banks had refused,” said the CUAD. “‘Go see Marvel’ became a common phrase in the community.”

Serving a rural farming community can mean tough times, and as the video makes clear the credit union has also had to make tough decisions, especially during the 1980s when agricultural markets hit hard economic times.

In the video Ebenhahn shares that it’s “not fun” to take away a farmer’s land. She said the CU’s policy has always been in cases where it had to foreclose to attempt to find someone else in the farmer’s family who might be able to take it over in order to “keep the family farm together.”

But in all cases the credit union’s interests had to be protected she said. “You can’t just charge off a loan because you like a guy,” Ebenhahn says in the video.

Olson, a 10-year veteran employee and president of CUAD, said he has had the opportunity to visit with Ebenhahn on many occasions.

“I would love to drop in on her credit union just so I could listen to some of her many stories of how the credit union was able to help so many people over the years,” he said in a statement.  “What is even more amazing is that she is making loans and doing business with grandchildren and great grandchildren of the people that first started the credit union. That’s why I thought it was important that we (CUAD) record Marvel so we could share her amazing story with today’s credit union leaders.”

The Ultimate Compliment

The CUAD reported several of its member credit unions have recently incorporated the video into their employee training programs – the ultimate compliment to Ebenhahn and her legacy.

“It’s amazing what people can do when they work together,” Ebenhahn says in the video. “I think I’ve been pretty lucky to have this job. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’d want to do anything else. I’ve been blessed.”


Three Field Notes

A Refreshing Difference from a Big, Local Bank

“Last year, my wife and I wanted to do some refinancing by taking out a mortgage on our home to pay off a mortgage on one of our investment properties that had a higher interest rate. We went to a big local bank with which we have done business for 40 years, including a number of mortgages and home owner equity lines of credit.

“We applied as we have many times before. The bank kept asking us for more and more documents. After submitting 69 documents (some were updates of documents we submitted earlier), we gave up. We concluded that they simply did not want to lend to us.

“This was hard to fathom.  Over the years, we have never missed a payment on any mortgage or loan. Also, the appraised value of our home, which would serve as security for the new mortgage, is nine times greater than the dollar amount of the requested mortgage.  Our monthly income, from rentals and Social Security, is ten times the monthly payments that would be due on the mortgage.

“There shouldn’t have been any question about our ability to pay. Our best guess is that the bank did not want to loan to us because we are 65 and older, and  retired, so we do not have salaries that can be garnished easily if we fail to make a monthly payment. In any event, we could not believe that they turned us down.

“The good news is that a mortgage broker suggested Honolulu Federal Credit Union (HOCU). The folks at HOCU welcomed us, asked for about a dozen documents, processed our application, and gave us the mortgage. It was smooth, quick, and friendly. We were grateful for the excellent service. We decided to open a couple of other accounts with HOCU as well. We have been happy with all of our interactions with HOCU during the past year. What a refreshing difference from that big, local bank!”

 Happy 73rd Birthday: Affinity Credit Union

(March 18, 2022)


Affinity Credit Union celebrated 310 Day on March 16th and March 18th at the Firestone Tire plant in Des Moines, Iowa. This “310” day  honors  our founding members form USW Local 310. Firestone employees were greeted with dollar bills, marketing gifts and entered to win a $310 cash prize.

In 1949, a group of 10 Firestone workers founded Local 310 Credit Union by pooling their money together to make affordable loans for Firestone workers. The credit union charter members carried a few dollars in a lunch box between work shifts distributing $5 and $10 loans. If someone needed a loan, they would first collect  deposits to fund the loan.

At the time, the founding group did not have any credit union members, had little money to lend, and no desk to consult with borrowers. Nevertheless, they persevered with a resource created by workers, for workers, that fed families, futures, and trust.

Today Local 310 Credit Union, now known as Affinity Credit Union, manages millions in financial assets, while helping 14,000 member-owners in central Iowa do more with the money they earn so they can live the life they want.

“On 310 Day we honor the Legends – the USW Local 310 founding members.  From humble beginnings they demonstrated the meaning of People Helping People and our ongoing mission  of Building Better Lives.”   said Jim Dean CEO.

From Maine Harvest FCU’s Newsletter

(March 2022)

Maine Harvest Loan Portfolio Now Over $1 million

We are pleased to report that our loan portfolio has passed the $1 million mark. This is a huge achievement for Maine Harvest FCU.  Our loan portfolio is dedicated to building a better food system in Maine and is:

  • Broadly diversified across sectors including vegetable, livestock, dairy, fruit, and botanical (herbs, flowers, plants) production;
  •  Across the state from York County to Aroostook County; and
  •  Funded by depositors like many of you who share our mission.


Borrower Spotlight

Providing Access to Farmland:
Start-up Farmers Ruth & Jonathan Bayless of Knock Knock Farm

“Working with Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union was a better experience than I could ever have imagined. They guided us through the financial process with what felt like unlimited patience and kindness. I know we would not be on our farm right now without them. We are so glad that they and their mission exist.”

Ruth Bayless, July 2021

Member Spotlight

Susan Kiralis and David Shipman
“The focal points of our China, Maine, home are the garden and the kitchen so when Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union opened it seemed only natural to put our money where our hearts and mouths were.

We have lived in China for the last 35 years, much of that time working at Fedco Seeds and getting to know the farmers and growers who can now benefit from MHFCU.

Working at Fedco, volunteering at MOFGA, serving on its board and at the Common Ground Fair, and now putting our money to work at Maine Harvest, we think we’ve done a small part toward making Maine the way life should be.”




Bon Mots IV-The Power of Local

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”   Joan Didion


Maurice Smith, CEO, LGEFCU:  “What if credit unions could crack the code for sustainable, scalable wealth-creation for disenfranchised communities? It’s really anchored in the notion that we as credit unions should focus on the people who need us the most.”


Linda Bodie CEO of Element FCU as reported by Denise Wymore:

Bodie:  “I can offer a lot more products, services and solutions even though I’m small. There’s no reason to sit back and not do something because of your size. Size doesn’t matter … not when you have the power of a cooperative system.”

Denise: Here are the three things your credit union can learn from the team at Element FCU:

  1. Bigger is NOT better. In spite of what our industry is obsessed with.
  2. Live the 6th cooperative principle: cooperation among cooperatives to gain economies of scale. There are alternatives to mergers if we just work together!
  3. Stay loyal to your brand and your target. Make your competition irrelevant by doing something that your competitors WILL NOT copy.


Notre Dame FCU President/CEO Tom Gryp: “Our ability to pay above-market wages to our incredible partners (employees) is a direct reflection of the loyalty and support of our members. My deepest thanks go out to our growing membership base, who without their ever-increasing utilization of our services, none of this would be possible.”


Jared Brock, self described  authorPBS documentarian, and cell-free futurist podcaster; a “free market” sceptic on “what we desperately need right now:”

Invest in your community — IE, start a family business, co-operative, community-owned company, not-for-profit, for-benefit, or partnership with one or more competent entrepreneurs with complementary skillsets such as:

  • Local, sustainable, organic food producers.
  • Local, sustainable, organic hemp clothing manufacturers.
  • Geothermal, mini-wind turbine, and micro-hydro installers.
  • House renovators to transform aging units into ultra-efficient eco-homes.
  • Builders of owner-occupier-only houses, neighborhoods, and cities. (We need to build 750+ million houses in the next 28 years or three billion people will be living in slums in our lifetime.)
  • Experienced political operatives to fundraise and start new, pro-democracy, pro-sustainability, anti-corporate political parties.

The reality is that we need a generation to build companies that give instead of take, that contribute instead of extract, that cement communal stability instead of undermining its foundations.

I sometimes wish we could get rid of grow-forever corporations and move forward solely with local/regional companies and partnerships and co-ops and for-benefits.


In The Speechwriter (2015), Barton Swaim remarks that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whom he worked for, “knew bad writing when he saw it, except when he was the author.”


Weekend listening, 5 minutes.  Ancin Cooley, credit union consultant:  “give someone else a shot at leadership before merging.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUWkTZe-sgg


A CEO for All Seasons

Dayton Ohio is most commonly known as hometown for aviation pioneers and inventor-tinkerers, the Wright Brothers. The local Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was named after them.

On that base in 1932 workers at Wright Field decided to chip in 25¢ a week to help an ailing co-worker and his struggling family. It was this shoebox of money that evolved to become today’s $7.0 billion Wright-Patt Credit Union.

The credit union was planted in this southwestern community of Ohio where inventiveness, hard work and the belief that people take care of each other were long standing values.

Doug Fecher and Wright-Patt Credit Union were made for each other.  He grew up in this culture and was reared on its values.  His strength, life-long connections and character are rooted in places where he saw people taking care of each other in times of need.

His capabilities perfectly matched the Wright-Patt community when he became CEO in 2001 after the sudden death of his predecessor.

His career did not start with the ambition to become a CEO. After high school, he left for Chef school, thinking academia was not his forte, and where his mother had paid tuition.  Changing diection, he then enrolled in the University of Cincinnati and eventually graduated while nurturing curiosity and eclectic interests that made him a lifelong learner.

He began his credit union career as a teller, a short-lived position because of the challenge in balancing out each day’s activity.  He then moved on to business development and marketing before joining Wright-Patt as VP of Lending in 1995.

In each phase of life, he developed lasting friendships.  At his retirement celebration he recognized grade school friends with whom he had gone scuba diving later as adults, a high school science teacher whose course he barely passed, three generations of his family as well as many professional colleagues.  He named each while recounting stories of the positive experiences he gained from these relationships.

His Leadership as CEO

His twenty years as CEO spanned unexpected and the most consequential challenges any leader could ever confront:  the attacks on 9/11 which kept the US at war for 20 years; the Great Recession of 2008/09; a decade of historically low interest rates; the national economic shutdown of March 2020 resulting in the steepest one quarter drop ever in GDP, and the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

These were not classroom MBA case studies. They were real-time events requiring immediate actions. The responses affected every person who depended on the credit union to do the right thing for them. In each of crisis, Wright-Patt met every challenge being there for members in spontaneous and creative ways.

When severe economic downturns occurred, he stepped up lending to members for home refinancing or ownership and for car purchases. Fees were waived. The credit union reached peaks in market share as other lenders hunkered down and withdrew in the face of economic uncertainty.

How Doug navigated these times is even more remarkable than Wright-Patt’s continued financial soundness.  He believed an organization’s culture, the performance of the entire staff, was what made strategy successful.

He instilled an expectation  of unparalleled and consistent member service. Credit unions were founded so people can take care of each other. The model is simple: members entrust their funds to you to use for others who need financial assistance.

He took a fundamental human value and made it new every day. He designed the three-stakeholder model-the staff, the members, and the credit union-to allocate resources fairly and most productively.

His intense focus on service as the ultimate differentiator, helped him avoid shiny objects, such as mergers, bank purchases or personal notoriety, that drew in other CEOs.

Member relationships were rooted in a saying he quoted from his dad, “Son, just remember to take great care of the people around you, and they will amaze you in return by taking great care of you”.

The Standard for Success

The majority of Wright-Patt members live paycheck to paycheck. Superior service earns their trust and lifelong support. It also strengthens numerous local community institutions that serve these same 445,000 members, including auto dealers, realtors, home builders, and the many retail services and stores necessary to make communities vibrant.

This member loyalty propelled Wright-Patt’s standing from the 95th largest credit union in 2005 to number 40 at yearend 2021. This was accomplished even though the members’ average share balance $10,044 is below the national average of $10,402.

Doug and his team never chased asset growth.  Instead, their success was measured by the number of people served and community impact. Today the credit union is present in  one of every three households in its Dayton home market.

His oft-stated benchmark for tracking Wright-Patt’s relevance was to ask:  If Wright-Patt did not exist today, would our members rise up and create us? 

Temperament Undergirds Success

Doug is a lifelong learner. Success did not come because he had a better idea than other CEOs; rather it was his skill implementing the credit union’s priorities.  Instinctively he understood leadership as a skill to be mastered. In sports terminology, he would be described as a “natural.”

He is an artisan in the craft of leading others. He took a traditional value-serving others-and made it every staff member’s purpose.  In his perspective, credit unions are a movement of people, not money.

At the top of each monthly Partner Update he placed these words:

“Transparency” is an important part of keeping promises. I hope this update is helpful and makes your job easier. Thank you for your interest in how WPCU is serving its stakeholders

Integrity, openness, and honesty are his operating practices. He is eloquent, using member stories he received to make his points.  The tag line at the end of every Wright-Patt email summarizes the credit union’s value proposition in six words:

“Save Better. Borrow Smarter. Learn a Lot” 

His eloquence is enhanced by his temperament.  He never appears angry; he persuades with logic and examples, not arguments.  His presence fills every occasion with humor and goodwill, qualities that bring out the best in people.

Leadership Contributions Beyond the Credit Union

Doug and his team expanded Wright-Patt’s role throughout the credit union system. He organized, joined or founded numerous CUSO’s including myCUmortgage, CUFSLP, Credit Union Student Choice, Cooperative Business Services, CUSO Financial Services and many more.

He used the financial strength of the credit union to develop a short-term loan option that saved consumers hundreds of dollars in fees charged by payday lenders. This model was eventually adopted by over 100 credit unions sharing in a common loss reserve.

He and his team actively participate in state,  national and CUNA leadership responsibilities.

He is a trustee on the Board of Wright State University which enrolls over 11,500 students.  As Chairman he helped shepherd the university through the most important decision a board undertakes: a presidential leadership selection and transition.

I asked him to join the board of Callahan’s after the Great Recession, anticipating an upcoming CEO succession.  Being a volunteer director in a group of peers is a very different role than the person of final resort as CEO.  Developing consensus with other volunteers can, at times, be hard work.

His commitment was unwavering. His wise, perceptive counsel made our whole organization more aware of how credit unions approached their role with members, in the community and with each other.

A Self-Initiated Transition

Doug enjoys many other personal activities such as biking, skiing, motorcycles, playing in a rock group, scuba diving.  He undertakes these “hobbies” for fun and as open-ended learning opportunities.

He left his CEO position at the top of his game, following the most successful year ever in the credit union, as measured by returns to the three stakeholders.  A courageous choice by someone who sees life full of bountiful possibilities.

His parting was a straight forward announcement in response to my email:

From: Doug Fecher <dfecher@wpcu.coop>

“Thanks for your email. I am out of the office and will not be returning as I am retiring from WPCU after 26 years of service. I will miss this job and the people I’ve been honored to work with and am looking forward to the next chapter in my life.

A successor has been named – please welcome Tim Mislansky as the next President/CEO of Wright-Patt Credit Union. He begins his new role on Monday, January 3rd.”

Doug never forgot where he came from or the people whom he knew along the way—a person of conviction who gave hope and a way forward for others.

He ended a recent conversation with a student interviewing him for her paper on leadership with the offer: “Thanks for connecting with me – please keep my number and if there is any way I could help in the future, please call.”

Talent does an old thing well.  Genius makes an old thing new.  Doug did both.




A Poem and Pop Up Musical Introduction to 2022

Guy Lombardo introduced America to Robert Burn’s poem Auld Land Syne  in his New Year’s eve show broadcast annually from 1929 through 1977.

The phrase “auld lang syne” translates from the Scots language to modern English as “old long since.”  It can be interpreted as “old times, especially times fondly remembered” or an “old or long friendship.”  It readily conjures up feelings of nostalgia.

Auld Lang Syne 

Robert Burns – 1759-1796

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
     For auld lang syne.
     We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
     For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.  Chorus

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.  Chorus

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.  Chorus

And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

The English Translation

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup! and surely I’ll buy mine!

And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine;

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine;

But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give us a hand o’ thine!

And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.

The Musical Version

 Here’s a musical rendition by  the US Air Force Band in a “flash” concert at Union Station in Washington DC during the holiday season.

The 8:50 minute video opens and closes with a jazz arrangement of Jingle Bells.  Auld An Syne becomes a group sing-along at 4:28.  But stay around till the end to see some of the most exciting hip-hop dancing to get your party juices flowing.  All this WW II flash back era sound is pre-covid, of course.  


A happy, and entertaining way, to start the New Year.



It’s a Wonderful Life and a Question for Credit Unions?

A great movie becomes a classic because it informs and inspires not only when released, but also for generations to come.  Frank Capra’s film has been a part of every Christmas season since its release at the end of WWII.

The story resonates because it portrays an individual and a community coming together to create a better life for all.  Because of its  popularity there are continuing efforts to address the film’s relevance today.

The Real Hero: Mary Bailey

Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse argues that Mary Bailey not George, is the actual hero of the story.

Mary deals with the same leaky roof and small-town limitations as her husband with one major difference: She never complains. She doesn’t need an angel named Clarence to descend from heaven and inform her that she’s actually led a wonderful life.

She knows intuitively that wonderful lives are not made by collecting passport stamps or military honors; they are made by investing in the community around you and wallpapering the bejesus out of an old Victorian.

“Why must you torture the children?” she asks George when he takes out his foul work-mood on the family. Why indeed? She’s the one who’s been home all day with a sick toddler and a clanging piano. . .

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: The entire movie celebrates the personal sacrifices of a nice man while ignoring the identical sacrifices of a nice woman. Why? Because “It’s a Wonderful Life” assumes something that society assumed in the 1940s and sometimes continues to assume to this day: A wife is supposed to sacrifice, buck up, make do, slog through. But when the husband does it, the whole town must take note.

Communities With Pottersvilles

Writer Jared Block suggests the theme of home ownership is a critical area on which America is falling short.  Here is his interpretation: We’re driving full-speed into Pottersville.

George Bailey’s day-to-day goal is simple:

To help every working family own their own home.

“Just remember this, Mr. Potter: That this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

 We desperately need more George and Mary Baileys — people of goodwill who serve instead of siphon, who are pro-human instead of market-driven, who knit together the fabric of society instead of tearing it apart.

We also need more people to build Bailey businesses — companies that give instead of take, that contribute instead of extract, that cement communal stability instead of undermining its foundations.

Sadly, homeownership will soon be as out of reach for the middle class as it already is for the working poor.  America is not heading toward an idyllic Bailey Park.  

I note one organization estimates America needs at least 7 million additional affordable housing units. At the current pace of 110,000 per year, supply will never meet demand.

The Moral Lesson: One Life Makes a Difference

Another observer asserts we need more of George Bailey’s “ministry” in today’s society.  The film from his perspective:

George Bailey who dreams of leaving his small town of Bedford Falls, traveling the world, and building bridges and airfields and skyscrapers a hundred stories high. But he never does those things because his father dies, he takes over the Building and Loan, and marries the girl next door.

George carries on a one-man crusade against Potter, a cruel, joyless miser who has milked the townspeople dry, forcing them to pay exorbitant rents to live lives of quiet despair in his broken-down tenements

Eight-thousand dollars meant to square the books of the Building and Loan accidentally end up in the clutches of Potter, causing George to fall foul of the bank examiner.

Only the intervention of a bumbling angel named Clarence saves George from taking his own life. To prove to George the value of his life, Clarence allows him to see what the world would have been like had he never been born.

Without the ministry of the Building and Loan, Bedford Falls becomes the twisted creation of slumlord Potter, a dark, hopeless, soul-crushing world of smoky bars and seedy dance halls, pawn shops and peep shows. As for George’s family, without him there, his mother becomes a bitter old woman, his wife an old maid, his uncle an inmate in an asylum, and his brother, whom George had saved from drowning when he was a boy, a corpse.

One life, George learns, touches so many other lives. Far from a failure, his life was the glue that held together his family, his business, and his community. 

The Film and Credit Unions

Some have opined that credit unions are today’s embodiment of  Bailey Savings and Loan.   Led by idealistic, hard working men and women and overseen by volunteers, all of whom are committed to uplifting their members and communities.

The film’s message shows success earned by overcoming personal, financial, economic and competitive challenges. Every credit union still confronts these today.   Including uncaring bank examiners.

The comparison feels relevant for another reason.  It celebrates the role of individuals have within a community.

Credit union’s common bond requirement is simply the identification of an existing group which hopes to improve its well-being by working together.

The feeling of “local” is created when users believe something is theirs.  It is not just a geographic concept, but also a sense of shared purpose.  And there is no more powerful sense of place than when members can own their home.

What makes the film timely is that the same challenges from 1946 exist still for members.  The film’s promise has yet to be realized by many.

The spirit of shared effort is still the most powerful coop advantage in a marketplace where competitive dominance is everyone else’s goal.

In the final scene, the people of Bedford Falls gather around Bailey and his family, donating the money to restore the Building and Loan which helped them achieve their own dreams of freedom, independence, and dignity.

The film poses an ongoing question being asked  today: It’s a Wonderful Life, but for whom? How credit unions respond to that challenge will determine if they are the true heirs of the film’s spirit.









The Power of Local-Where People Meet Face to Face

The number of Christmas cards I received in the mail this year was overwhelmed by solicitations for yearend donations.   They came from near and far: Chevy Chase Rescue Squad (volunteers), theater and dance groups, churches, hospitals and many national organizations from Doctors without Borders, the Salvation Army and Planned Parenthood.

What each tried to do in their appeals was to stress their local consequences. Here is one request from a supporter of our local live theater:

Dear Charles,

I know you have many options for charitable donations during this year’s holiday season. By now, you’ve been flooded with emails, texts, and phone messages asking for your generosity. 

Instead of getting lost in the shuffle, I’d like to tell you why I’ve been giving to Round House for more than two decades and will continue to do so.

For my wife Lorraine and me, it started out quite simply: we wanted to support a local theatre serving our community both artistically and educationally. Round House stood out because it was right in our backyard, doing quality work, and truly impacting the community. 

Through our giving we have been able to help not only in Round House’s growth but also in enhancing Bethesda and the greater DC area—a place we have loved and been a part of for so long.

I am incredibly proud of how Round House has confronted the many challenges of the pandemic—from being one of the first theatres in the country to pivot to virtual productions and continuing education programs online to safely returning to live performances and in-person classes with robust covid protocols and viewing options in place to protect artists, patrons, and staff.  

Despite all that has happened in the world over the last two years, Round House has remained resilient and continued to be an asset to this community by offering bold, outstanding theatrical and educational experiences both virtually and in-person.

Your contribution helps Round House be a theatre for everyone and continue making an impact in the community. 

The Advantages of Local

Local is about connections, being involved with people where they live, work and play.   The impact is not limited by geography, but is rooted in people’s ability to see their organization at work.

Writer Nick Wolny who promotes online business effectiveness, has written about the lessons from brick and mortar, what he calls the entrepreneurial efforts of the “Original Gangster” (OG) firms.

My first job when I was 16 years old was working at a bakery. I was slingin’ scones and washing dishes until my fingers were pruned.

The owners were a husband and wife. The husband baked all the bread. 

We lovingly called him “Bread God”.

This guy was at the shop at 3:00am to start the breads… seven freaking days a week. 🥖

And he did it with a smile. 

In the years that followed – and eventually when I came to have my own business as well – 

Reminding myself of the brick-and-mortar hustle kept me honest and focused.

It’s easy to cut corners as an online entrepreneur.

In his article Four Insights Creators Should Steal from Offline Business Owners, he describes the advantages of local presence for which there is no on-line counterpart.  He closes the article:

In its current iteration, the creator economy has existed for about ten-ish years. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar business owners have been grappling with the fundamentals of business for centuries. We could learn something from what they prioritize.

Credit unions have existed for 112 years.  Their virtual strategies for two decades.   How credit unions sustain the advantages of local while expanding online transaction capabilities is the critical investment decision all will continue to confront.

One Photo, Hearts on Fire, a Credit Union and Community Respond to a Vital Human Need

Clearwater Credit Union, Missoula, MT, is involved with solutions to one of the most difficult challenges facing their community, the nation and the world: refugee immigration.

Every day this story moves from Afghans on the front page to Haitian migrants huddled under a bridge over the Rio Grande.  Politicians pose and procrastinate while hundreds of private organizations, individuals and communities respond to this never-ending need for human relief.  The temptation to stir up public fear is never far away.

This is the story of how Clearwater and its community joined to respond to this on-going human tragedy .  

Founded in 1956 by eight police workers, Clearwater Credit Union is the second largest of Montana’s 47, with over $850 million in assets plus a $250 million mortgage servicing portfolio. 

It is the state’s largest Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

In 1979 Missoula was a resettlement community for Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia, allies during the Vietnam war.  Today, that community includes farmers, food service operators and active vendors in local open markets.  The forty year history of this immigration experience is described in this 2016 article  in the Missoulian:

While their contributions to the outdoor markets are perhaps most visible, first-generation Hmong immigrants and their offspring are bankers and real estate agents; decorated war heroes and high school valedictorians; sports standouts and chefs; entrepreneurs, business owners and probably a dozen other things around town.

The Need Arises

In 2016 the refugee resettlement needs rose again in Missoula with people from Syria, the Congo, Iraq and Eritrea trying to find a new place to raise families, often following harrowing escapes.

The turning point for the credit union and many in Missoula was the picture of Alan Kurdi, a three year old lying on an island beach off the coast of Turkey.  His mother and brother also perished-all Kurdish refugees hoping, somehow, to get to Canada.

In memoria aeterna erit justus  (The righteous-innocent-will be in everlasting remembrance)

The still boy beside moving waters. This face of tragedy energized a community.  

Mary Poole, who had been a tree-climbing arborist before her first child, found the photo gut wrenching.   She was determined to do something and raised the topic with her local book club. They began research to find out what worked well in other successful refugee programs. Montana was one of only two states that did not have a path to welcome refugees. 

This grassroots group invited the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to open an office in Missoula and serve as the city’s resettlement agency, creating that path.  They then founded a 501(c)3,“Soft Landing Missoula”, to support newcomers and connect them with all aspects of community life.  

Her story and this remarkable organization, can be seen in this 2017   8 minute video.   

Transforming the Credit Union

Jack Lawson became Clearwater’s CEO in 2013.  His prior roles included Founder and CEO of Brooklyn Cooperative FCU (1998-2008) and COO, Self-Help FCU ( 2008-2013).  After making sure the trains ran on time, Jack posed the question how the credit union could differentiate itself for its employees, members and from competitors.  The credit union chose to implement a values-based approach to business strategy.  

The history of this transformation and what it meant for the credit union’s priorities  is described  in their 2018 Annual Report.  As Montana’s largest CDFI and their strategic repositioning, refugee settlement was exactly a situation for which the credit union intended to have a positive impact.

Jack too had been moved by the photo. The credit union was chosen by the local office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to be the designated provider of financial services for refugees.

As Jack related: “It was an easy fit for us.  We saw it as a way to improve the financial well-being of some of our most vulnerable new neighbors.” This support involved the following initiatives:

  • Becoming a financial services provider for both Soft Landing and IRC
  • Coordinating with IRC to provide financial accounts for all incoming refugees
  • Adopting telephone bank translation services, at the credit union’s expense, to help each branch team serve people speaking languages they do not know-for example, Swahili, French, Tigrinya, and Arabic.   
  • With IRC, developing financial education classes for refugees to help them understand the US financial system, products, and services
  • Providing credit builder loans to build credit histories for the new arrivals
  • Contributing tens of thousands of dollars of philanthropy toward Soft Landing and IRC
  • Publicly celebrating the credit union’s work with the refugee community to help normalize their presence as neighbors

Refugees typically have no credit or personal financial history. The credit union teaches them how to participate in the financial system and establish a personal record.  The credit union has now hired its first refugee employee from among those  who have resettled in the community over the past five years.  

But the credit union’s role was much broader than offering financial services. As related by Mary Poole, CEO of Soft Landing:

“I met Jack on a soccer playing field.  He is part of the community and attends multiple public events. He knows the community and cares for its people because he is a part of it.  He came to us and asked what the credit union could do.  They supported local sporting events, annual fundraising, provided volunteers–we now have a CCU employee on our Board.  

There is a whole culture at the credit union reflected in their support for our work.  This is not just part of Jack’s job or the credit union’s service efforts.   It is how they interact with everyone and view their mission.  They are a thought leader in the local and world community-it’s the culture of the credit union.”

In the new federal fiscal year starting October 1, Soft Landing anticipates 75 Afghan and 150 other country refugee arrivals will be resettled in Missoula by the International Rescue Committee.  When Soft Landing first announced the idea of welcoming new neighbors in 2015, over 300 community members signed up to volunteer to help with school, housing, learning English, transportation and the dozens of other immediate personal needs of new arrivals- all before a single refugee came to town.

This interest has not faded, and has recently been  invigorated by the needs of  incoming  Afghan evacuees. Community connections are what makes these life transitions effective. The programs also celebrate the diversity, skills and experiences refugees bring to their new community.  

The Credit Union’s Strategy

Having moral imagination is expected of leaders, but nonetheless difficult to fully practice. Many in positions of authority ignore the imperatives of ethical truth in moments of life’s difficult choices.  It is much easier to follow the utilitarian pragmatism which suffices for many a leader’s everyday decisions.  

But there is another model.   To be moral is to be oneself.   Instances of compassion multiply and attract others of similar purpose. A person with this leadership capability is celebrated in the oldest of all literature:

Beatus vir, qui timet Dominum. . .

Generatio rectorum benedicetur.

Et justitia eius manet saeculum saeculi.

Exortum est in tenebris lumen rectis

Blessed are those who fear the Lord. . .

The generation of the upright will be blessed.

And their righteousness endures for ever and ever.

Unto the upright there arises light in the darkness. 

That is the vision Jack has set for Clearwater.

An Example of One Refugee Family: From the 2018 Clearwater Annual Report 

A refugee family moved to Missoula from Eritrea, Africa. Thanks to the credit union, they had the help they needed.

On average, it takes a refugee two years to resettle — that’s two years of waiting and wondering what’s next. Here’s how we helped Desbele and his family make themselves at home.

Desbele Tekle and his family came to Missoula from Eritrea, Africa, in May of 2017 during the magic of a Montana springtime. His sister and her family came too, and they all quickly grew to love the mountains, the people, and the “long-running river.”

Staff from International Rescue Committee (IRC) Missoula met the family at the airport and brought them to their new home. After settling in, Desbele and his wife Samrawit attended our “Understanding the U.S. Banking System” class for refugees, which IRC Missoula and Clearwater Credit Union created together.

This class teaches families like Desbele’s how to write a check, use an ATM machine and debit card, and understand the difference between a savings account and checking account, with trainings offered in Arabic, Swahili and Tigrinya through on-site interpreters from IRC Missoula.

The Family Needed a Car

Some challenges of resettlement are distinct, like language and culture.  Others are universal.  In a family of six, everyone has different schedules, Desbele’s children (ages 5,8, 13 and 15) go to daycare, elementary school, middles schools and high school.  Any parent will tell you that four kids in four schools plus after school activities, will make transportation tricky.  

Clearly they needed a vehicle.

Desbele went to a dealership first, where he tried to navigate a car purchase with a $500 credit card in hand. When that didn’t work, he called a friend (our translator for this interview) and together they went to our credit union.  Because of the banking classes he had taken, Desbele knew we would be able and willing to help with his first purchase here.

With a loan from the credit union, Desbele was able to purchase a minivan Now he can run errands and transport his entire family to church and school.

He can also get work.  Back in Eritrea, Desbele was a midwife.  Now, because of the car, he can make the commute to the Village Health and Rehabilitation Center, where he’s now employed.   Desbele is thrilled to be working again in the medical field. 

“So happy getting a loan because otherwise, it would take a very long time to get money to get a car, which would distort our plans.  This opportunity allows us to dream.”

With his family all together, a reliable set of wheels, and help from the local credit union, Desbele and his family are finding their place here in America — a place where their dreams can come true.

Recently, that dream led them across the country to join up with long-separated family and friends and a life in another city.  The start and “soft landing”they experienced  in Missoula provided them a solid foundation for success in their new home as well as life-time friends to return to visit in this little mountain town.

Charitable Giving by Individuals and Credit Unions

A donor advised fund (DAF) charitable investment account is an option for individuals who wish to support charitable organizations in a more organized manner. The funds are administered by third parties such as a mutual fund or broker dealer.  A person can contribute cash, securities or other assets and take an immediate tax deduction.

The funds can be invested in various investment options for tax-free growth.  Donors  can recommend grants to virtually any IRS-qualified public charity (501C3) they may wish to support at a future date.

The major advantage is that DAF contributions provide an immediate tax benefit while allowing assets to potentially grow tax free in the future.  The flexibility in managing contributions and subsequent gifting versus answering numerous individual appeals  is an advantage along with the tax planning options.

The annual reports of these various funds also provide insights into where this segment of the population focuses its giving.

T Rowe Price’s DAF 2021 Annual Giving Report shows its 1,600 donors made over 29,300 individual grants to 11,100 charities.

The five most supported charities were:

    1. Doctors without Borders
    2. Salvation Army
    3. Maryland Food Bank
    4. American Red Cross
    5. Planned Parenthood

These individual donors are  a very small and possibly elite sample of the population.  However I found the top five instructive because they are well known charities and national in scope.

While I would presume many donations were made to educational, religious institutions and other local charities, it was heartening to see the communitarian spirit indicated by these leading gifts.

Credit Union Charitable Activity

In addition to individual credit union 501C3 foundations, the most popular long term charitable effort has been the Children’s Miracle Network.

However credit unions in 2013 received another  option via Charitable Donation Accounts.  These accounts were approved as an incidental power by NCUA. Multiple credit union organizations including CUNA Mutual, CUES, and Members Trust Company offer programs for managing these special investment accounts.

While limited to 5% of net worth, their advantage is they can invest in securities outside those permitted for credit unions by rule 703. Their only requirement is that 51% of the total return must be donated to 501C3 organizations over a five-year period.

As of June 30, 2021 there were 187 credit unions which had established CDA’s with a total value of $1.084 billion.

The CDA option is established, credit union by credit union, for both fund contributions and subsequent donations. Individual accounts range in size from Pentagon FCU’s $136.4 million to Temple-Inland’s $1,000 balance.

There is no current process for aggregating and reporting these individual charitable efforts as in the T Rowe Price report.  As the majority of these accounts appear to be managed by three providers, it would seem feasible to report collective donations by credit unions on an annual basis.

Credit unions certainly promote their individual donations, often with press releases and photos; however the overall impact is missing.   I wonder what the top five credit union charitable contributions might be?   Whether these are local, national or even international organizations, the message of cooperative community assistance is only being partially told.