Sharing Purpose & Meaning With Effect

Communication transforms when it touches a person’s emotions.  It transcends the moment.  It becomes art.  It helps us see beyond what we knew before.

The most difficult challenge for any organization is telling anyone why they should be interested in joining with you.

Messaging is more than competing for our attention with a product commercial or a clever brand.   Ultimately, it must appeal to something inside.   It should make us care.

He Gets Us is a video campaign that attempts to represent the “greatest love story ever told.”   It suggests the relevance of christen belief in today’s context of religious decline or misuse.

This creative group states its purpose as follows:

We’ve done a lot of homework on our culture. We researched how people feel about each other and what they think about Jesus and Christianity. We’ve connected with thousands of people of various faith traditions and those who claim no religion. We spoke to all kinds of people — different backgrounds, beliefs, and, yes, political affiliations.

And this is what we’ve learned: From politics to sexuality and religion, so many of us feel like our values, beliefs, and identities are under attack by the ideological “others” around us. Many perceive those who differ with them on issues of justice, dignity, and humanity as not just wrong or misguided but also as evil. As enemies. We often see these “others” as close-minded, selfish, hypocritical — and if we’re honest, many of us respond in kind. 

This week I will share several of the group’s “presentations” which look and are sometimes presented as commercials.  But they are much more.  They help us see, to understand more than we did before watching them.

The Credit Union Parallel

What do these “messages” have to do with credit unions?   To be seen as relevant in today’s crowded social media is the same challenge credit unions confront.  There are a number of organizational parallels.

The participation trend lines in most religious denominations are trending down.   Smaller churches are closing.  Larger ones are greying.   Sunday or Saturday “sabbath”  is a time  for  family errands, fun outings and preparation for the week ahead-not participating in a community of shared purpose.  Society’s divisions are mirrored in our religious practice as presented in the group’s purpose:

The more ideologically defensive we become, the more we are willing to sacrifice things like kindness, patience, and the respect and dignity of others for the sake of victory — the righteous ends justifying the dehumanizing means. And it’s tearing us apart. We experience it in politics, in the workplace, in schools, and even in churches. And at the heart of the conflicts is a fundamental disagreement about what it means to be good. 

Credit unions and churches no longer seem central to many persons’ lives. Our basic needs and core values, “to be good,” are fulfilled in other ways and commitments.

The He Gets Us videos try to show the relevance of lessons from generations ago for real people today.

My hope is to inspire rethinking for today’s coop messages.   We need to move beyond the headlines and priorities of our current moment and rediscover the energy that made the industry a movement, an alternative to the status quo and  rediscover who we can aspire to become.

The Immigrants

A hot button topic when people are polled about public issues for political campaigns is the flow of migrates to America.

The one-minute video, Refugee, presents this ongoing human circumstance with a specific context.


What I found equally compelling is the producer’s five-minute  story  telling how this video was assembled.  The making of the Refugee video:


Does this message open one to a different way of seeing this issue?  Does it stay with you after viewing?  Does this human-centered perspective suggest a parallel in your credit union’s role?

Big Banks Adopting a Credit Union Tactic

Yesterday’s Marketplace program on NPR had a brief report on the investments two of America’s five largest banks are making to improve their competitive position.

Technology?  New Ventures? Greater staff skills? Social Marketing Influencers?  Third party-fintech-origination partners?  More acquisitions?  All are factors, but not the newest priority.

The New-Old Strategy

JPMorgan Chase announces brick-and-mortar bank expansion in a digital age

Several of the relevant paragraphs from the story:

In the year 2024, when you think banking, you think mobile apps, online deposits, digital future, right? Not so fast. JPMorgan Chase, the country’s largest bank, announced today it’s opening more than 500 new brick-and-mortar branches and renovating another 1,700.

This follows an expansion by Bank of America last summer. So, what’s the value of banking in person in the digital age?

You don’t usually think of a bank as having a living room. But Jason Patton of JPMorgan Chase says they’ll be a staple in a handful of the bank’s new branches, which are meant to be places where people chat. . . (in cu’s this is called serving members)

“Some of these branches, we’re opening up in places where we’re not as well known,” he said. “So, in many cases, people don’t know what we have to offer.”

And it’s important to see and be seen by those people if banks are going to drum up new business, said Jaime Peters, a finance professor at Maryville University in St. Louis.

“By going and building these new branches, and having that placard on the side of the road that people pass every day, that is brand awareness, that is trust building,” she said. . .

The Only Growth Option Is Organic

Big banks have another incentive to add branches: The ones that hold more than 10% of the nation’s deposits are generally prohibited from acquiring other banks, said Michael Rose, a managing director in equity research for Raymond James. 

“So because you’ve removed the ability for them to actually acquire other banks, they have to grow essentially organically,” he said.

The Credit Union Counter: Enhancing “Their” Local Environment

After posting the latest video from White Fish CU,  I received a link from Jason Lindstrom CEO of Evergreen CU in Maine.  This new video  has a similar community theme, but different subject matter. It is an homage to Maine’s forests and the people who maintain and enjoy them.

In addition to branches,  “local” means that  a credit union is authentically “home-grown,” not merely a local outpost of an out-of-state or national financial firm.    Bank of America or JP Morgan Chase branches are not being grown (drummed up) from the natural environment.  Rather they are an invasive species, trying to replace the local habitat.

This is Evergreen’s mission, “keeping Maine wild.”


Three Examples of Credit Union Success

Credit unions can be inventive when communicating their special nature.  Here are three different approaches.

A Few Great Numbers (KPI’s)

This traditional view of success is from the yearend numbers of an exceptional coop. This CEO’s team focuses on the 5 key performance indicators (KPI’s) in 2023 as shown below.

metrics goal actual
member growth 5.10% 4.10%
net earnings 1.00% 1.23%
service quality 82.25 83.3
P&S per member 4.64 4.61
deposit growth 10.00% 12.80%

These along with many others not shown (net worth, loan growth etc.) would be outstanding in any year.  However in this year of flat to down trends overall, they are extraordinary.   How was it accomplished?

This credit union implements the most traditional and important strategic advantage credit unions enjoy–“relationship banking.”  It provides stable deposits, long term members and intense focus on their community and its well being.

The organization does this by putting people first. The CEO tells employee and member care stories as a central part of his monthly updates.  Not words, but deeds, sometimes confessing honest shortcomings.

The credit union leadership has set boundaries, what to do well and what not to attempt.  No mergers, no bank buys.  They are in a market dominated by a super coop competitor ten times their size.

For those who believe scale is necessary for success, this credit union grew to over $700 million in 2023. It did so while recording the fifth consecutive year of lowering its operating expense to average assets ratio. In this five years the ratio has fallen every year going from 3.08% to 2.55%.

That result  is lower than the majority of credit unions over $5 billion.  It is because they know who they are as a credit union.

Celebrating a Community That Cares

For any credit union striving to communicate its role in the communities served, I would urge you to look at this latest video from Whitefish Credit Union in Montana.

It is from Josh Wilson, Senior Vice President for Marketing.  The video centers around people in all walks of life serving their community in local food banks.

It is a moving documentary.  So powerful it should be entered in the Sundance film festival. The stories honor those who serve and are being served.  It is a tribute to the small rural towns and the natural environment in which the credit union operates.

Watching it makes you feel good about this example of caring for others.  There is not a word about Whitefish’s financial services, which says everything you need to know about the credit union.  Enjoy.


The Special Opportunity for Credit Union Leaders- I Feel Like Makin’ Love

Yesterday I linked to a song by the rock group Green Day.  A fan, Bob Bianchini, sent me their latest video from two weeks ago.  It is a real picker-upper to start your day.

You might ask who is Bob Bianchini?  He is the only League President who simultaneously served in the state legislature.  That was in an era when credit union leaders knew how to get things done.

This video reminded me of Rex Johnson’s exhortation to the credit union audiences who attended his many lending symposiums.   He would close by telling them, “your job is to treat your members so well that they become fans for your credit union.”

Here is what genuine fandom looks like-in a New York subway station from Bob and Green Day.


The Pied Piper of Stockton (Part II)

This is a three-part look back of a January 26, 2022  article on the transfer of $10 million of members’ capital to a non profit  by the CEO and Chair as a result of merging Finance Center Credit Union.

Part I  summarized the previous events and articles offering principals’ explanations.

Part II below presents data subsequent to the merger from the Foundation and CEO Duffy’s activities through January 2024.

Part III will address what happens now?

Part II: Updating the FCCU2 Story To the Present

How is the newly expanded Valley Strong Credit Union doing?  After the first full year post-merger, (ending December 2022) the credit union was going gangbusters.   However as of September 2023, the same indicators suggest the credit union has hit a  brick wall.

Ratio/ Measure     December 22    Dec ’23

Loan growth %            49.1%                 -6.6%

Share growth                8.7%                      1.5%

Members                     16.4%                       6.8%

Total Assets                 21.3%                    -3.8%

Net Income                 (46.0%)                   8.6%

ROA                                 .44%                         .44%

Net Worth                       8.1%                       8.5%

Loan Originations         58.5%                (51.4%)

Delinquency                     1.1%                        1.2%

Net C-O loans              $25.4 M              $68.8 M

# employees-FTE            625                       570

Two notes from 4th Quarter numbers.  The credit union reported a non-operating gain of $15.2 million or 84% of total net income on which ROA is computed.

The compound four year CAGR annual ROA growth (2019-2023) is negative 18.9.  In the same period the annual CAGR for average salaries and benefits grew 12.2% per year.

The two years’ trends show a dramatic slowdown in key balance sheet accounts,  rising loan charge offs and a staff reduction of 50 employees.  Mergers can create an initial  “sugar-high” growth appearance, but sustainability depends on a firm’s ability to  develop relationships, that is grow organically.   How FCCU members view their new credit union is hard to discern from this macro data.

 The Data from IRS Filings

The 990 IRS non profit filings for FCCU2 and Valley Strong (both  for 2022) provide important data.

From Valley’s 990, we learn that all of the senior FCCU employees listed in the Member Notice, remain employees and qualified for their $800,000 in total 2021 merger bonuses. Their total  compensation for 2022 is listed as :

Michael Duffy, EVP Chief Advocacy Officer    $1,088.045.

Nora Stroh, Legacy Ambassador  $361,814

Steve  Leiga, VP Accounting   $354,748

David Rainwater, Sr. Project Mgr   $362,747

Amanda Verstl, HR manager   $353,542

The data is from Valley Strong’s 2022 Schedule J partially shown below.

Total compensation of the five senior FCCU executives on this schedule is $2, 521, 696.

The FCCU2 IRS Information-A $2.0 Million Bonus Contribution

The FCCU2 foundation’s 990 for 2022  provides information about the transfer and use of FCCU members’ funds from the merger.

  • The most stunning fact is that the Fund did not receive the $10 million listed in the official Member Notice. Rather the total sent to the foundation  in 2021 was for $11,959,462 or almost $2.0 million more than disclosed to and voted on by members.

No explanation is provided where these additional funds came from? Why were they taken from members or not transferred to Valley Strong as part of the equity transfer? Who approved this $2.0 million additional amount? What was NCUA’s role?

  • In the same 2022 IRS filing we learn:
    • The Foundation has changed its name to The 54 Fund.  No public explanation of the reason can be found in any media.
    • The address is no longer at the former credit union’s office but in the building below, that is 2616 Pacific Avenue #4081. It is the local post box not an office.

  • The new foundation lists no website address or other contact information.  When I emailed Foundation director Steve Liega on the IRS return, I received no reply.  When dialing the phone number, it is “not in service.”

  • We do see the $250,000 donation listed in Valley Strong’s contributions, its largest single grant.

We also learn all of the initial funds were invested in a firm called the Dana Group.  What does this have to do with credit unions or prudent investing?

After adding  $2.0 million more of members’ funds, all these registration/location changes further remove the Foundation from public scrutiny and accountability. The only  information available is from the IRS 990 filed in October 2023, ten months after year-end.

In  contrast credit union call reports are public and received quarterly.  Annual  state and federal exams validate reported data. The 990 provides additional information on donations, political contributions and executive salaries.  In contrast, the financial details of the new 54 Fund are available once per year and then ten months after year end.

The 54 Fund Spent $0.38 for Each $1.0 Donated

Even though limited, the Foundation’s first full year report gives insight how it manages its activities.

Total revenue was $368,658  including the $250,000 donation from Valley Strong.   Total operating expenses were $105,858. Charitable donations were $272,479.  For every $1 in donations, the Fund spent another $.38 on operating expenses.

The $272,479 donations were distributed in 86 grants ranging in size from $1,000 (45) to three at $25,000 each.  The recipients include churches/temples of all denominations, multiple private and public schools, private social agencies, and the United Way of San Joaquin. The 54 Fund at 2022 yearend had more assets than at the beginning ($11.974 vs $12.058 million)

The purpose stated for all  grants is “general support.” Other than seven over $10,000, the much smaller 79 amounts might be characterized by the term, “walking around money.”

Of the nine 54 Fund directors chosen by Duffy, four are former senior FCCU employees, now at Valley Strong.  In 2022, all five former senior FCCU executives listed in the Member Notice received much greater annual compensation from Valley Strong  than the Fund’s $272,492 in total donations to help its 29,000 former members.  Is it just proving the adage “charity starts at home?”  Were these five positions  and pay, or others,  “at will” or negotiated in contracts?  Did the executives guarantee their success and not member benefits?

Three other 54 Fund directors are former FCCU board members including the  Chair Manual Lopez. Another director is Ed Figeroa, listed as Executive Director, who received a salary  of $46,667.  Figeroa had recently retired as CEO of St. Mary’s Dining Room. In 2020 the charity received a $100,000 donation from FFCU as part of the credit union’s Stockton Strong donation (see video from Part I).

By comparison, Valley Strong CU made  total 501 C3 contributions in 2022 over $1.1 million including  $250K to the 54 Fund.  These grants were made without the need for a foundation.

As a tax exempt organization there is no purpose for a credit union to establish a separate foundation to  expense grants.   This raises the question of motivation.  Why was a new foundation needed “to advance and support the needs of the members”-Duffy’s characterization in Part I.

The “Tragedy of the Commons”

Why was the  FCCU2 foundation established just a month before the merger announcement when it was unnecessary for charitable grants in the credit union’s previous 65 years of operations? Or at Valley Strong now?

The separate foundation registered by CEO Duffy (along with  his former employees and board directors) keeps total control  of the  funds by Duffy.  If the money had been returned to  the members  or transferred to Valley Strong, the ability to continue to cultivate an image as a civic patron would not be under Duffy’s control.  This transfer of $12 million  “privatized” members’ common wealth.

The  54 Foundation was the vehicle used to promote the personal philanthropic reputation of the  FCCU CEO once he left his leadership role.  His previous political and public grants activity had been funded from his credit union’s resources.  He needed a new funding source.

Two examples of this reputation motivation are in recent articles. In January 2024 Michael Duffy was selected as Stockton’s 69th Stocktonian of the year.  The story begins:

Dressed in a gray plaid suit and a red striped bow tie, the former president and CEO of the Financial Center Credit Union became the 69th person to receive the award for service and positive impact on the city.”  The paper provided a series of pictures of the event. 

The article cited Duffy’s past as CEO of FCCU (a responsibility he had exited 28 months earlier) and his position at Valley Strong. There is no reference to Valley Strong’s recent charity or the Foundation as the source of Duffy’s donations.  But he gladly accepts the praise and publicity for giving away a tiny fraction of the $12.0 million set aside from the  former FCCU members’ collective savings.

A longer article reporting the same award was published by the Stocksonian on January 29, Banker Michael  Duffy Surprised by selection as Stocksonian of the Year.

He is now described as a “banker” a higher calling apparently than a former credit union CEO.

He is quoted in the article saying: “I love Stockton, and so I find every which way to be a part of Stockton,” Duffy said. “If it’s from the north, to the south, the east, the west, the tiny neighborhoods, the big events, the very small not-for-profits, the very big ones, if I can be there enjoying this city with everybody I’m there.”

Neither article notes that after gaining his living for 28 years from the credit union, he and his board failed to seek a successor to lead the city’s 66-year old and largest local cooperative financial firm. That would be  standard industry best practice when CEO’s decide to leave.  It is also a fiduciary duty of the Board of directors.

This is a recent case  of how CEO succession normally proceeds, especially for financially strong credit unions. FCCU’s capital ratio of 16% was twice the ratio of Valley Strong.

But that process would mean Duffy would be out of a job which had been paying  him over $1.0 million per year. And he would no longer have access to members’ funds to show his civic “love.”

A Financial Pied Piper Leads Members and Resources to Bakersfield

The term Pied Piper refers to a person who is able to charm or lure others through the use of their skills and ability to manipulate them for their own gain.

Instead of sustaining the credit union  to serve its founding community, Duffy engineered the transfer of 29,000 Stockton’s members’ $635 million locally owned assets and their $110 million accumulated capital.  A new board and executive team 250 miles away now controls how these resources will be used.

When initiating this change of control to a credit union with no local  roots,  Duffy set aside $12 million of his members’ surplus for his direct control in the 54 Fund.

He turned the Robin Hood model of wealth distribution into a financial round robin game.  He first retains money, not using it for member benefits, to build reserves more than 100% higher than peers. From this extraordinary capital surplus, he directs $12 million into the new organization he controls.  To justify this diversion,  he says it to help those from whom he withheld the earnings benefit in the first place.

When CEO, Duffy short-changed members’ returns  by building capital ratios twice the industry average.  He turns to this same source for the 54 Foundation funds. Truly a double blow for those who entrusted their financial futures to his credit union leadership.

In Part III I will discuss what happens next.  And share the names and writings of two persons who saw through this whole financial flim flam from the start.

(Editor’s note:  Valley Strong data for December 2023 updated on February 3, 2024)

The Pied Piper of Group 209,  or What Happened to the FCCU Members’ $10 Million? (Part I)

On January 26, 2022 I wrote a detailed analysis of the transfer of $10 million of members’ capital to a non profit organized by the CEO and Chair of the merging Finance Center Credit Union.  My position was that this was an improper taking of funds owned by the members, but asked,  “You be the judge.”

This is a followup analysis since the October 1, 2021 merger and funds transfer.

Synopsis:  Part I  summarizes previous events and questions raised about the money transfer.  Articles provide principals’ various explanations in  a CU Today story.

Part II presents the new Foundation’s data subsequent to the merger and former CEO Duffy’s activities as recently as January 2024.

Part III asks what happens now?

 Looking Back at the Merger Issue

Stockton’s (area code 209) Need for Credit Union Services

In the words of the CEO of a local community food kitchen for the needy, “Stockton is not a destination city.”  Its population of 322,000  residents is 42% Hispanic, 24% Asian, 19% non-Hispanic white and 13% black.  It is one the most racially diverse large cities in America, according to a U.S. News analysis based on 2020 census data.

It is not a wealthy city. Median household income is $71,612 and per capita, $29,095. (2022)  The poverty level is 15.6%.   And only 18% of the population over 25 years has a college degree.

The Stockton record summarized the city’s variable reputation in a November 2023 article:

“Stockton has topped another list and this time it’s not a bad thing.

“While Stockton’s long had a reputation of being one of America’s most miserable cities (thanks, Forbes), U.S. News & World Report is shining a positive light on Mudville.

“In its most recent report,  Stockton ranked among the best places to live in California. It ranked number thirteen, one spot below Visalia and one spot ahead of Bakersfield.”

Stockton was nationally recognized as one of the first cities in the country whose finances collapsed due, in large part, to unaffordable defined-benefit pension obligations.  This threatened its ability to deliver basic services like police protection.

The city is the ideal opportunity for a locally focused credit union.  The member needs are many.  And until October 1, 2021, this was Financial Center Credit Union’s (FCCU) long time home market. On that date the CEO and board transferred via merger all the credit union’s savings, loans, members and operational direction to Valley Strong CU whose main office is in Bakersfield, a city approximately 250 miles and a four hour drive away.

Setting Up the Transfer

On June 25, 2021 Chair Lopez and CEO Duffy of FCCU registered a non profit in California named FCCU2.   Forty two days later Chair Lopez signs the official Members’ Meeting Notice to merge FCCU into Valley Strong.  The Notice includes the transfer of $10 million to this newly established corporation, one of several merger disbursements members were asked to approve in the merger vote.

To my knowledge this transfer of member capital to the sole control of the former CEO and Board chair had never occurred.  It appeared to be a “taking  spoils” from the event. The amount, the singular nature of the transfer and the credit union’s prior five year downtrends under CEO Duffy raised the question of whether this money grab was proper.

CEO Duffy and his Sister Nora Stroh  had been the senior executives at the credit union since 1993.  At the merger date, the credit union had served the Stockton community for 66 years with Duffy as CEO for the final 22.   In the  years prior to the merger, the $635 million credit union recorded these trends:

  • A decline in loans outstanding from $176 million in December 2016, to just $102 million at the merger date. This is an annual negative growth of 10.3%.
  • Total members declined by 2,900 from December 2016 to the merger, a fall of over 2% per year. These declines in loans and membership were the exact opposite of the growth gains reported by all other segments of the credit union system.
  • Even with this decline in risk assets, the credit union continued  adding to reserves from earnings. The result was a net worth (capital) ratio of 20% at December 2018 and 17% in December 2020, nine months before the merger.  During this five years, the credit union at times reported a net worth/asset ratio of more than 100% of the loan/asset ratio.
  • In the IRS 990 filing for 2018, the three highest reported salaries of Duffy, CEO; Nora Stroh, COO; and Steve Liega, Accounting and Finance were a combined $3.1 million or 46.5% of all compensation for a staff of over 90 employees.

During this period of decline in members and loans, CEO Duffy maintained a high profile public image.  The credit union reported numerous local and statewide political donations and grants to area non profits in its annual 990 filings.

The Critique

In the years leading up to the 2021 merger,  CEO Duffy operated with the form, but not the substance, of a cooperative charter.  It was run as a family business promoting the public visibility of the CEO, versus the well-being of members.

My January 2022 post was called A Theft of $ 10 Million or Just Spreading Goodwill?  I provided multiple data points about the credit union’s loan and member decline, million dollar executive salaries, and net worth sometimes greater than 100% of the loan to asset ratio.

An example of Duffy’s personal PR efforts is a video from the Stockton Mayor’s office of a $1.0 million donation to Stockton Strong in 2020. The speakers state the money  is from the “employees of the credit union and the Michael P. Duffy Family Fund.”

The only credit union employee in the eleven minutes is Duffy. The video shows two mock checks of $100,000 each to charities feeding food insecure residents.  In the same year as this employees’ gift, the credit union’s outstanding loans declined by $40 million.

I can find no public reference to the Michael P. Duffy Family Fund in either California’s registrations or IRS 990 tax exempt filings.

CEO Duffy’s May 1, 2021 press release announcement of the merger included the following rationale:

As the CEO of Financial Center Credit Union for the past 21 years, my perspective on mergers has evolved . . . I have marveled at what credit unions of today’s scale can accomplish when they join forces . . . this merger is a true embodiment of the credit union industry’s cooperative mind-set. . . this merger represents a strategic partnership between two financially healthy, future focused credit unions committed to providing unparalleled branch access, digital access, and amazing service for the Members and the communities they serve.

There was no data or hard facts to support this sudden strategic insight. The only concrete future service promise in the Member Notice was  access to Valley Strong’s 19 branch offices which were an average of 250 miles from the former Stockton headquarters.

Press Followup of the $10 Million Question

CU Today published an extended story following up  the $10 million transfer to Duffy’s control.  The story, Leaders from Merged-Out Credit Union Head New Foundation, provides the participants’ explanations as follows:

The individuals involved in setting up the arrangement say it was approved by the regulators and is designed to fulfill the new merged-out credit union’s mission, while state and federal regulators issued vague statements saying no laws were violated and that the creation of the $10 million foundation was “a business decision” on the part of the credit union. 

Duffy’s specific defense of the $10 million was,  ”It’s not a diversion, but rather an investment in the communities it serves. This ensures that the funds will be used in the manner in which it was intended: to advance and support the needs of the members” 

When asked why it was not paid to members: “The board viewed its strategic decision through three lenses: members, team and community. . .It’s a symbiosis between the three and we wanted to continue the continuation while improving opportunities through cooperation vs competition.”

After Duffy’s twenty-eight years earning a living and achieving personal standing in Stockton,  he initiates the transfer of  $634 million total assets, $102 million in loans, 29,500 members and their $540 million of savings to another credit union’s control and leadership.  Prior to merger related adjustments, this “free” transfer also encompassed the members’ $107 million of capital.

Duffy kept control of $10 million in his words, “to advance and support the needs of members.”  After transferring all his leadership responsibility for managing  $634 million of member assets out of Stockton and away from local control (but keeping his CEO level compensation) he arranges to hold back $10 million for his personal use.  In order to serve the “needs of the members” he had just sold out!

Part II tomorrow will look at data and events since the merger.


Credit Unions and Popular Culture

Yesterday’s post on The Bank of Dave was a tru-ish movie about an actual effort to organize a local financial institution focused on the needs of the town of Burnley.  Dave Fishwick, a real person, was the hero.  The antagonists were regulatory bureaucrats, lawyers and of course entrenched financial institutions.

As in It’s a Wonderful Life, the founder Dave  is portrayed as someone serving the common good versus personal profit.  The movie’s message is that this person’s purpose is one that present day  society should honor and support.

How are credit unions portrayed in popular American culture?  Are there any movies, books, plays or other artistic recognition of their special history?

Last night I attended a performance of The Seafarer, a play about Irish life by Conor McPherson. The scene is Christmas eve. The four personal friends drink for camaraderie and to cover the darkness in their lives.

A fifth character (Lockhart), the devil in disguise, enters to participate in a poker game, the main action (after drinking) of the second act.

This inebriated poker rounds are a metaphor for Lockhart’s stated intention of capturing the soul of Sharky, a character trying to give up drinking.

During the final betting round, the stakes go higher, and all raise with the last money they have on hand. At that moment the lead character challenges one of the other players, “Where are you going to get your stake?  From the credit union?”

In the midst of this realistic-surrealistic tale is a direct reference to a financial  reality an Irish audience would understand.  The play was written in 2006 as credit unions were becoming more widely available in Ireland, a generation-long process.

Similarly, The Bank of Dave is set in the post 2008/9 financial crisis in Great Britain when consumer lending was unavailable.  Current day  viewers would be familiar with the real circumstances motivating Dave’s initiative.

American Culture and Credit Unions

Where and how are credit unions referenced currently or in past American literature?  Is there a Norman Rockwell painting that illustrates this financial opportunity for a  common person? Or a story of a local entrepreneur lifting up the community with a cooperative charter?

Is the credit union story so prosaic that the occasional coverage in the business section of the paper or on CNN/MSNBC captures our public reputation and contributions?

Have the many remarkable achievements of local credit unions been so taken for granted, that they are now just another ready option in the financial marketplace?

Have credit unions so lost their unique cooperative character that American culture and ordinary citizens, no longer see them as doing something special?





A Credit Union-Like Story: The Bank of Dave

Just released and streaming on Netflix is a movie The Bank of Dave.  Set in Burnley in the north of England, it is the story of a local van seller who sought the first new banking license to be issued in 150 years in the UK.  It is a contemporary version of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Dave’s intent is “not about me making money” but creating jobs and the quality of life for the whole community.  Profits will go to charity.

For the Financial Regulatory Board, the question is not can it succeed, but rather should it exist?

All the incumbents want to preserve the status quo where a few, large “financial supermarkets” dominate the economy.  Dave’s local proposal is not the “right sized bank.”

Dave must overcome established bureaucratic opposition, a very high capital requirement (twelve million pounds) and entrenched scepticism that a new financial model is necessary.

You can read the status of his efforts today in this article about the movie, Dave Fishwick’s life and his ongoing campaign.

Although he faced resistance at every step, Dave eventually made good on his dream, opening Burnley Savings and Loans in 2011, and using “Bank on Dave!” as the company’s slogan.

The Message and Credit Unions

Dave in life and in the film is a pillar of the community.  His dream is political, not just financial. Banking should not be reserved for the rich and powerful.  Rather in a community, it is the ordinary people who define what that institution should be.

His goal is to have a bank that “looks after the community.”  He wants  a better way, than the current system,  of helping each other where and how we can.  That is Dave’s vision of what community is about.

The parallels with the credit union story are many.  This includes the entrenched resistance to new charters and the  ever present temptation to leave behind those that created the institutions which dominate markets today.

The Bank of Dave is a timeless story about money and who gets to control its use and distribution.   It is a reminder that financial institutions are built first on trust in the people who lead them.

When that trust and connection is lacking, then others will move to fill the needs that are no longer served.

If you still need convincing about the Dave’s of this world, here is an interview with this real Dave.


A Surprising Listing on LinkedIn

Jason Lindstrom, CEO at the $535 million Evergreen Credit Union in Portland, Maine posted the following yesterday:

We’ve got a great Board of Directors and are looking for great people to join our Board. Please let me know if you are interested.

Are you a passionate Maine business owner, community leader, or senior manager looking to collaborate with professionals like you? We’re looking for hardworking Mainers to serve on Evergreen’s Board of Directors. 🌲

On our Board, you’ll be sharing your knowledge and collaborating with Evergreen’s leadership team to create change in our credit union for our members and positively impact your community.

Evergreen Credit Union is the 5th largest credit union in Maine with over $535 million in assets to date. We’re proud to serve over 28,000 members throughout 6 counties in southern Maine. We’re excited for Evergreen Credit Union to grow as we continue to bring award-winning member service and products that help our members every day.

Ready to start? To submit your application or inquire, email by December 15.

An All Hands Effort

I called Jason to find out more about this unique approach recruiting new board volunteers, all unpaid.

The credit union has nine voting members and three non-voting directors. As a community charter, it is vital for the credit union to expand relations with  local organizations.   Jason is on three 501C3 volunteer boards and a Maine League director.

In prior years and again this year, the credit union had placed ads for board openings in local papers, but received no response.  Finding volunteers has become more difficult effort for all his associations.  A different approach was necessary to attract persons whose might feel they had little spare time to give.

The board decided to go all out in its search for three openings in 2024 by using social media. An ad was placed on Facebook.  Directors and staff were asked to repost the announcement on their social media accounts, hoping to expand the audience reached.

Building Deeper Community Ties

In most credit unions, board recruitment is a private affair.   Candidates are incumbents, self-nominated, or sought from directors’ existing relationships.  The process is characterized  by political considerations versus a public invitation for leadership talent.

Evergreen’s strategy is to be more and more “community connected.”   Membership has been growing at almost 7% per year.   In a largely rural state, people value their local relationships and organizations.  Informing the community in this messaging effort is another illustration of their commitment to Portland and surrounding towns.

Reinforcing their community ties is integral to Evergreen’s business model.  Tapping into the Maine spirit that values relationships is vital to attracting motivated talent. And as Ed Callahan would say, “When you run with good people, good things will happen.”




Next City’s Take on Credit Unions

Often outsiders offer fresh insight about what makes credit unions special then found in the industry’s own internal coverage.

Next City is a digital journalism site that provides innovative examples of individuals and organizations confronting the challenges of urban life.   Its focus is on solutions that improve the conditions of those  most disadvantaged in large cities.

Credit unions are frequent go-to examples.  The following are two recent reports that highlight their special roles.

Juntos Avanzamos: “together we advance”

The first story is: This is what a Credit Union Designed for the Hispanic Community Looks Like.

The article describes the efforts of Granite Credit Union in Salt Lake County, Utah to receive the Juntos Avanzamos designation.This designation certifies that the credit union is committed to serving Hispanic and immigrant communities by being accessible to Spanish speakers, conducting research on the local Hispanic community, offering accessible and relevant affordable housing programs, and more.

The story reports that the Hispanic/Latino population continues to rise in pockets across the U.S.  including by 37.6% in Utah from 2010 to 2020.

The article presents the history and process for the Juntos Avanzamos designation which now spans over 27 states.   The credit union model is an ideal fit for many of these new Americans because: “When you give someone an opportunity and take a chance with them when all other doors are closed, it builds incredible loyalty, sometimes for life.”

“The Fabric that Makes America”

A November 21, 2023 article, The Outsized Impact of Small Credit Unions, interviews Sue Cuevas, the CEO of the $4.8 Nueva Esperanza Community Credit Union in Toledo, Ohio.  The second credit union leader is Sheilah Montgomery CEO of the $24 million Florida A&M University Federal Credit Union in Tallahassee, Florida.

The CEO’s comments are candid and illustrate the realities of small credit unions with a deep commitment to serving their communities.  Here are short excerpts from the Q&A portion of the story:

Our overhead is much lower than some of your billion-dollar financial institutions. We have one branch, an ATM and eight staff team members. But we have a full-service financial institution. Because of our lower overhead, we’re keeping our interest rates lower than our competitors. . .For instance, we did loans with no credit checks.

On the Latino community in Ohio:  The pandemic really hit hard. A lot of (our members) lost their jobs. They were in restaurants, housekeeping, places that shut down. . . Where I’m located people don’t even know what a 401K is. Right now, we don’t offer checking accounts. Most of our credit union members speak Spanish. They don’t know how to write in English. So, checking accounts to them are very foreign. . .

Currently we’re located in the basement of a health clinic. You have to come down some very big steps. It’s not an advantage to my members. The parking area is also very limited. So, our initiative is to get into a much larger location above ground, which allows our members the ability to come in safely and park safely.

FAMU: Since we are a full-service financial organization, we offer a plethora of products and services and most recently we’ve expanded our business loan services to help small businesses, who we like to call the fabric that makes up America. We processed approximately $2 million in small business loans over the last 18 months.

These stories show credit union relevance is not based on asset size, but the power of serving others.  Their example should make us all proud of a system that attracts leaders living these commitments for their communities.

Should the Past Matter? Mission and Co-ops

How important is the knowledge of an organization’s past for a new leader?  Isn’t the responsibility of any CEO to take a firm forward from the present to the future?  Moreover, can’t one rely on existing staff and members to affirm what is important to know from history-if needed?

This is not a hypothetical situation.  Credit unions will sometimes choose new leaders with no connection to the organization or even to credit unions.  An example is BECU’s new CEO. One current NCUA board member and the newly nominated member waiting Senate confirmation have no prior association with credit unions.

How History Informs the Present

Recently I attended the 300th anniversary of the “founding” of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church.  The date of 1723 is somewhat arbitrary as there are no specific records except the journeys of itinerate ministers who came from Philadelphia to Cabin John and Bethesda to hold services.

According to the cornerstone, a new church building was constructed in 1850 on the tallest hill in the area after the original 1829 structure was destroyed by fire.  The church was called Bethesda.  It was named after the pool of Bethesda in the biblical story of the lame man waiting to be lifted into healing waters.  That eventually became the name of the town that grew up in the area.

The 1850 church and Victorian era manse occupy four acres which includes a cemetery.  The Presbyterian church founded there, moved to a new location in 1925. Various other congregations have used the buildings since.  In 2019, the entire site was abandoned.  The buildings and surrounding grounds have had no maintenance.

Nevertheless the buildings have received an Historic Site designation which prohibits it from being developed as a commercial or residential project today.

The church has seen some historic moments.  During the Civil War confederate cavalry occupied the site before union soldiers drove them away.  Abraham Lincoln is said to have visited the church.

The building contains the original beautiful sandwich glass windows.  There is a slave quarters in the rear back balcony of the church.  The original bell was stolen from its moorings in October of this year.

Besides its long historical role, why should this past matter to modern day Bethesda?  When we moved here in 1982, the town was still small, marked by single and double story buildings surrounded by  family homes and apartments.  The metro had not opened.  One could drive in and park on the lot at the Hot Shop in the town’s center.

Today Bethesda is a developer’s dream with twenty story multi-use condos and offices multiplying like rabbits.  No small parcel is exempt from this vertical expansion, except for the Tastee diner that sits at the foot of Marriott’s World Headquarters.

Reason for Resurrecting the Site

What does an abandoned, overrun hill with two deteriorating buildings mean to this new mecca of upscale commerce and residences?

In a talk during the 300th anniversary celebration of the Church, a local volunteer historian presented his thoughts on why preserving a community’s history matters.

The church is old and freighted with history.  Which begs the question of why we are here, celebrating it.  To me, the answer is that shared history is an important part of what defines a community. We can only understand and celebrate what we are when we understand and appreciate how we came to be. And we look to the past to prepare for the future because, as James Burke wisely observed, “there is nowhere else to look.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter that we can’t pinpoint the founding date of this congregation.  What matters is that the history of Bethesda Presbyterian Church and its (original) Meeting House is literally the history of Bethesda—its rise, its growth, its weaknesses, its redemption.

No other building or institution comes close.  How did we begin?  Look here. How did we cope with slavery and its legacy?  Look here.  How did we evolve from a farm hamlet to a suburb to an urban center with all the strengths and challenges that brings.  Look here.

Credit Unions, History and Mission

Credit unions have played an integral role in their members’ lives and what it means to be part of a “community” initially called a “field of membership.”

It is not the buildings and products that define a coop, but rather belonging to a group whose mission is to take care of each other, even today.  Members bring their history, sometimes their entire lives, contributing to keeping it going.

That continuity of mission is why credit unions exist.  When that history is forgotten, ignored or seems irrelevant to the present, that is when we begin to lose our future.

A credit union can be much more than a financial institution; it is a means of creating and sustaining a “community” that cares about each other.  And whose history will have “its rise, its growth, its weaknesses, its redemption” just as this Bethesda spiritual congregation has experienced in its 300 years.