There Was Good To Be Found In Past Year — Now Build On It

After having had so much go wrong in the past year, it just seems fitting that so many folks are letting go with a sigh of relief that the "decade is over." without realizing they've got that wrong, too. The first decade of the 2000s still has another year to go.

Still, the first 90% of this decade, and especially the past year or two offer up some ideas on how credit unions can make the most of the next decade, whatever your position might be on when it arrives. While credit unions may never be able to agree on a national branding message (and who says they need one?), there are some strategies credit unions should be pursuing as a cooperative community that would benefit all.

Among the buzz-phrases of 2009 was "green shoots," a reference to signs of life in the economy. Here are some of the resolutions CUs should be pursuing in the new year, and the years to follow, based on a few green shoots that just may grow into healthy, vibrant trees:

• It's time to grab the green, credit unions, and ride the face of the environmental wave. The credit union movement should own the green movement in the country. The very essence of what the ecological movement and sustainable living are all about are also very much the essence of credit unions. Credit unions recycle money in their communities, with the organization taking only what's needed to sustain it and returning the rest to its shareholders.

We are at the forefront of not just what is to come in the next decade but the next century, and it's not just good for the Earth, it's good business. Increasingly Americans are building "green" homes and retrofitting older houses and businesses to reduce energy usage. They're interested in more efficient automobiles and lifestyles. In most cases, Americans/members need two things: money to finance those homes, cars, green technologies, and information on the how to go about it from a trusted advisor. Hmm, whom might that be?

Already MAX Credit Union in Alabama is not just way out in front of credit unions but financial institutions everywhere in seizing the green niche as its own. The credit union has created a popular, annual expo of green initiatives where CU members and members of the community can meet with builders, vendors and consultants who offer Earth-friendly products and services. Members of its executive team have become leaders in LEED, and it is looked to by local media and even state government for guidance on eco-positive practices. A presentation on what the credit union does, how it does it and why was among the most popular at Credit Union Journal's Grow Show in 2009.

And when members need to finance a greener lifestyle, from whom do they borrow the green? You got it.

Perhaps MAX should form a CUSO offering consulting and guidance to credit unions across the country on becoming the "green" leaders in their towns and cities, with a goal of embedding the renewable, sustainable lifestyle into the credit union brand. It's a perfect fit, and an enormous opportunity for Planet CU.

And the second best part of all that is that no bank has done so-yet.

• At its core, sustainable living is all about "paying it forward," and here's to hoping credit unions resolve in 2010 to build on the momentum created with this idea during the past year.

In early 2009 I had lamented what a wasted opportunity International Credit Union Week is every year, with straight-to-the-recycling-bin newspaper inserts and thanks-for-the-slice-of-cake-but-what-is-this-for in-branch celebrations being the usual MO.

I had hoped we'd see more credit unions borrowing an idea originated by Seattle Metro Credit Union, which pioneered a "Pay It Forward" concept in 2008 in which it took marketing dollars that could have gone to quickly forgotten fluff and invested it instead in a project in which it offered $10 to locals and invited them to talk about what (ideally good) things they would do with it. Responses were videotaped and placed on its website for the community to vote. The winning response led to a $1,000 donation to the respondent's cause (and lots of views of its website).

That idea has blossomed, not just at Seattle Metro (where it was tweaked slightly in 2009) but at credit unions across the U.S., which have rolled out various iterations of the basic premise, usually in conjunction with International CU Week in October. Let's be honest: most consumers greet International CU Week with the same yawning enthusiasm as National Pickle Day or National Brown Paper Bag Week. And who could blame them?

But credit unions that have employed Pay It Forward have seen substantial media coverage and increased awareness, including the opportunity to describe what CUs are all about. Imagine if credit unions banded together as chapters or even at the state level with the project. The results would be paid forward in numerous ways.

• Similarly, let's resolve in 2010 that if you're able to pay a bonus dividend to members, that marketing isn't limited to a line or two of explanation written in CFO-ese in the monthly statement. Savvy credit unions have recognized that the bonus dividend is really a bonus differentiator, and have created websites to help members (and potential members) calculate their returns, in addition to other marketing efforts.

• Finally, resolve to offer your feedback to Credit Union Journal in 2010. We look forward to hearing from you.

Frank J. Diekmann is publisher of Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.