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3 ways to reconnect with your credit union’s WHY

Blackboard with "why" written on it

You belong to, work at, or partner with a credit union (or some combination of the three). You believe in the difference credit unions can make. And you can reel off the credit union cooperative principles without doing a Google search.

Kudos to you and an enthusiastic Zoom high five!

But do you sometimes find yourself taking the credit union difference for granted? Prioritizing products over purpose? Sensing a disconnect between your daily tasks and the cooperative principles?

I’ve certainly been there—and I’m guessing you have too. All of us need to take a step back sometimes to reconnect with the credit union WHY. And what better time than spring to seek out some fresh inspiration to re-embrace the cooperative spirit?

Here are three tips to get you going.


1. Seek perspectives from start-up credit unions

Granted, there aren’t many credit union startups out there. In 2021, NCUA chartered only four new credit unions, which is actually a significant increase considering they had granted a total of four charters in the prior three years.

Still, a handful of dogged entrepreneurs have gone through the laborious process of starting a new credit union in the past few years, and I’ve had the good fortune to connect with two of them: Civic Federal Credit Union and Clean Energy Credit Union.

Talk to someone who’s recently launched or joined pretty much anything, and they’re typically brimming with enthusiasm and a sense of possibility. Who wouldn’t want to tap into that?

Civic Federal Credit Union serves local government employees in North Carolina; Clean Energy Credit Union focuses on members who share their commitment to clean energy. Both set out to fill a gap in the credit union landscape; here’s how they lean into their respective core purposes:

Focus on shared values. A limited field of membership is an obvious way these two credit unions keep the focus on shared values. But it’s not the only one.

For instance, Civic Federal actively seeks out employees who share their belief in and commitment to the value of cooperatives. That way, as credit union employees navigate the inevitable ups and downs of building the foundation of a new business, says Michael Spink, SVP of Research and Development, they “know you’re running after the same mission and remain united.”

Clean Energy leverages consumers’ desire to match their investments with their values by giving those concerned about the environmental impact of fossil fuels a hands-on way to make a difference. Those who want to invest in clean energy can deposit funds with the credit union; deposits are then lent to those who want an affordable way to purchase a clean energy product or service.

Encourage and support diversity of thought. Complement your shared values by seeking out members and staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. Many established credit unions have seen the demographics of their communities evolve and change over time, and it’s imperative to ensure that their staff demographics and product offerings similarly evolve. This is a powerful way to challenge the status quo and uncover new ways to serve your members. 

Learn from the real world. Develop your credit union’s culture and capabilities by testing them in the real world. Civic Federal has done ethnographic research to better understand members’ relationships with money and what they need from their credit union to achieve financial wellbeing. Are you making assumptions about what your members need, or are your strategies grounded in real world-research and feedback?

Take innovation baby steps. Tech companies are known for being comfortable with a “move fast and break things” mentality. Credit unions, meanwhile, tend to be more cautious and more resource-constrained. But that doesn’t mean innovation is off the table. Bijal Gami, VP of operations at Civic Federal, stressed the power of taking innovation “baby steps” and being willing to fail. And the mere existence of Clean Energy—a credit union with a limited field of membership and a limited suite of impact-focused products—is a great example of innovation at work.

(Are you passionate about supporting the creation of more new credit unions? Check out the CU De Novo Collective which is working to effect this change.)


2. Reconnect with your why and keep asking why

It’s good to innovate, says Chad Helminak, Director of Programs and Impact at the National Credit Union Foundation, but make sure that innovation (and potential failure) align with your purpose.

During a recent conversation I had with Helminak on our Remarkable Credit Union podcast, he continually stressed the importance of purpose, which entails both looking back and looking forward.

On the one hand, we need to understand and appreciate our cooperative roots—remembering why credit unions were founded in the first place and the difference they have made for hard-working Americans across the country and around the world. When we get bogged down in the minutiae of everyday tasks and responsibilities, it can be easy to forget how the core cooperative values around which credit unions were founded continue to positively impact our members and communities.

And on the other hand, it’s equally important to continually challenge the status quo. Helminak says it’s imperative that credit unions don’t settle for the same ol’ same ol’—in fact, challenging the status quo should be the credit union movement’s new status quo! That’s especially true now as credit unions and members emerge from two very challenging years.

Sometimes leaning into your purpose requires stepping back. Helminak encourages credit union employees to attend the Foundation’s Credit Union Development Education Program (DE), which is dedicated to keeping the purpose of credit unions at the forefront of everything we do. More than 4,500 U.S. credit union employees have attended the program to date—and the program has been growing organically both here and around the world.

I attended back in 2018 and can’t say enough about how it’s helped me to focus on and create a culture steeped in purpose.


3. Prioritize training and education

The DE program is a phenomenal training opportunity, but ongoing training and education can also take place in-house. PixelSpoke, the marketing agency where I currently serve as CEO and co-owner, converted to a worker-owned co-op at the beginning of 2020. Since then, we’ve invested more time and resources into training and education than ever before.

We’re not exactly a start-up — PixelSpoke was founded back in 2003 — but changing our ownership structure offered an opportunity to re-align with our values, revisit our WHY, and identify new areas of growth for our team.

In a time when a record number of people are quitting their jobs, team morale and employee retention are key. We knew that employees who grow with us are more likely to stay with us. We also know that if our team is unhappy or disengaged, our clients will follow suit.

But even more importantly, we like to learn. Our intentional learning environment helps us continually hone not only our digital marketing chops, but also deepens our appreciation for the cooperative movement, our core purpose, and our triple bottom line.

Key questions

As you revisit your WHY, ask yourself:

  • What shared values link your staff, your members—or both?
  • When your credit union was founded, what problem did it set out to solve? How has this mission evolved over time?
  • What steps has your credit union taken to broaden your hiring pool and new member targets?
  • How are you challenging the status quo? What real-world testing, research, and outreach has your credit union undertaken to ensure you’re meeting your members’ evolving needs?
  • What innovation baby steps can your credit union take, and how will this innovation strengthen your purpose?
  • What training and education opportunities, both internal and external, will help you and your team reconnect with your WHY?

Author and speaker Simon Sinek urges us to “start with why.” It’s great advice, but we don’t want to let that “why” gather dust on a shelf. We need to keep returning to it to refresh our own sense of purpose and reinvigorate the cooperative spirit.

This article was originally published in CUInsight.

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