Last week there was a healthy reminder that if you want to know the shape your house is in, it can be a good idea to get out and take a look at it from down the street. You may need a coat of paint, after all.
At the same time the Credit Union Journal's front page was breaking the story of a payout of at least $6 million to Bob Siravo, the CEO of the failed WesCorp, another person was also looking to lay low. Traveling carefully and seeking not to draw attention to himself, a representative of Afghanistan's fledgling credit union movement caught a flight out of the danger and chaos that is his homeland and eventually made it to Barcelona, Spain, the first time ever the country would be represented at the World Council of Credit Union's World CU Conference. Imagine, by the way, for just a moment what credit unions could do with $6 million in Afghanistan!
Think that despite the comfort of your offices, paying the corporate assessment and dealing with a when-we-we-hit-the-bottom economy has made this a tough year? WOCCU CEO Pete Crear noted that those working in Afghanistan's CU movement aren't discussing any brand campaign, and instead seek to keep a low profile, lest their work anger fundamentalists and lead to them being killed.
At the same time Credit Union Journal was reporting a partnership between Bellco CU in Denver and "PayItGreen" in which one tree is planted for every member who signs up for e-statements and billpay, Carilus Ademba, managing director of the Kenya Union of Savings & Credit Co-operatives (KUSCCO), told me the trees some of his members are most worried about are those growing coffee beans. The world recession has finally reached his country, noted Ademba, and those who export coffee (along with tea) have seen a slowdown in business that caffeine can't speed up. Those in the tourist trade are suffering, too, as the number of visitors had dropped. All of that has led to fewer loans even as Kenya remains primarily a cash society (the country's CUs, known as SACCOs, have more than three-million members and $2.4-billion in assets).
Execs at U.S.-based CUs who have added kids' clubs named after cuddly animals might want to consider how leaders of Kenya's CUs often spend their time: trying to help children stay in school and manage finances after their parents have died as a result of the country's raging AIDS crisis.
At the same time credit unions in the U.S. have been experimenting with Twitter and generally considering themselves to be technology leaders, the World CU Conference heard from credit unions in Mexico that send representatives into the field to meet members on their schedules and to conduct business using hand-held PDAs in real-time.
At the same time credit unions in the U.S. are plotting strategies to either A) loan out the inflow of deposits they've seen or B) adjust pricing downward to slow those deposits, Christian Florin Bota, CEO of the Central Federation of Romanian Credit Unions (FedCar), was at the World CU Conference looking for some help in getting laws changed to allow credit unions to accept deposits. Or at least that's the way I think Mr. Bota explained it. His English isn't good, and my Romanian is nonexistent. But he was able to convey that under current law in his country, any member looking to borrow must put up 20% of the loan amount in cash before the loan can be approved.
At the same time as the World Council will be meeting again next year, so, too, will CUNA. That's because the two groups have agreed to combine their meetings next year into something called "The 1 Credit Union Conference." The meeting should offer any U.S. CU leaders willing to break from their cliques and comfort zones in order to meet with their peers from other countries an unparalleled opportunity to re-charge their tired batteries with a jolt from what credit unions can do and what "credit unionism" is about.
The Siravo payout merited only a bit of discussion in the convention center abutting the Mediterranean last week (although, to be fair, most in attendance don't know WesCorp from a Westin), even if its size exceeded the assets of many of the credit unions on hand. The world recession, too, while an underlying theme, received far less attention than it has at U.S. CUs this year (then again, CUs Down Under didn't see net income headed down under by any bailout-related costs).
Instead, recessions and downturns and poverty and every other sort of challenge are seen by most CU leaders in other parts of the world as opportunities to prove the value of the old-fashioned (at least in the U.S.) notion of the CU "mission." I've been lucky enough to file expense reports from many of these World CU meetings. Rome. Sydney. Cork. Prague. They draw crowds, of course, but the glamour locations always overshadow what's viewed by many as a glamour vocation.
As WOCCU CEO Pete Crear told the meeting last week, "Our return on investment is never fully measured in dollars earned, but in members served and, in many cases, lives saved as a result of those efforts."
At the same time, I can promise this: those who attend The 1 CU Conference next year will leave with a stronger sense of a shared common bond and purpose than any they have ever felt. But perhaps not from anything related to credit unions. Instead, over having survived Las Vegas in July.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at email@example.com.