A CU Angle To Every Story, A Story Behind Every CU

Media coverage of the tragic plane crash that took the life of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens focused on his long career in the U.S. Senate, the circumstances surrounding his departure, and on the recovery efforts to reach survivors who spent the night in a remote, rugged area of the Last Frontier.

Not getting much coverage, not surprisingly, was Stevens' interactions with credit unions during his long career in Washington. How long? He worked in the Eisenhower administration before serving in Congress from 1968 to 2009. Dave Chatfield, the current acting CEO of the California/Nevada CU Leagues, and who in his long and storied career in CUs did a stint at Alaska USA FCU in Anchorage, noted that Stevens was known as a "good friend" to credit unions who remained a "staunch supporter."

In an e-mail, Chatfied noted Stevens was "feisty and took good care of Alaska, and that included the organizations that serve the consumer financial needs of Alaskans: its CUs. He expected a lot from us and he gave us his support in return," including sponsoring Chatfield for a position on the NCUA board.

Certain fields of membership have a cool factor, and few do a better job of leveraging it than Hollywood, Calif.-based First Entertainment CU. How cool? First Entertainment is using the person behind the voice of Bart Simpson-Nancy Cartwright-as one of the judges of a story-writing contest it has launched that challenges members to "write a killer story of up to 2,500 words" that "somehow involves or includes" the credit union. The 60,000-member First Entertainment primarily serves many of the behind-the-scenes workers in the entertainment industry, but it has also been working to capture more of the writers (i.e., just about everyone with a pencil, crayon or word processor in LA) in its FOM.

Smartly, it's requiring prospective members and members to come into the branch (where they must then meet with a CU rep) with a hard copy of the story. The rep gives the author/new member a code that in turn allows them to upload the story at a microsite.

In addition to Cartwright, the other two judges include John Reed, a novelist, frequent magazine contributor, and member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and Kirk Ward, a writer, actor and director whose credits include a one-man show that was part of HBO's Aspen Comedy Festival, and roles in movies such as Forrest Gump and The Island.

Entrants will achieve more than just fame-they can win $2,500 or one of three iPads. On the microsite at www.firstentertainmentwriteoff.com, promotional text notes, "While you're here, check out your competition, read up on our judges, drool over the prizes, collaborate with the other aspiring writers and more-it's a full blown social network set up just for this contest. Learn more about the industry's leading financial institution at http://www.firstent.orgwww.firstent.org."

I'm not eligible, so I'm going to give away-free!-the following riveting opening lines to get aspiring CU storytellers a jump on the genre: "It was a dark and stormy nightly back-up." Or, "Call me Ishmael. Or Mike. Or Susan. Or Jose. I'm an identity thief." Or, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, the member realized he should have read more carefully that fine print about the penalty for early withdrawals."

The invention of the blog has brought to the surface any number of consumer opinions and viewpoints. Not all of them are comfortable to read for credit unions, but they can be interesting in an outsider-looking-in sort or way.

Recently, on DepositAccounts.com, there was discussion of this CU oddity known as "field of membership" and of James Bond's distant cousin, Common. Some back-door ways of joining certain CUs-such as joining certain associations-was discussed, as were what the author considered "strange eligibility requirements" for certain CUs that pay above-market deposit rates.

Among those cited were Progressive CU (where you must be recommended by another member), Self-Reliance Ukrainian American FCU (where, well, you should be able to figure that one out), several credit unions with statewide charters (which seemed to confuse the author), and South Division CU, where membership is limited to "any U.S. neighborhood of family and friends with a household USPS Zip Code ranging between 01000-99999."

Coastal FCU deserves a lot more than a penny for its thoughts. The CU's move to charge a one-cent overdraft fee provided the member takes certain steps (see related story) is brilliant. Charging a penny is a far more effective PR move than making waiving the fee altogether, as the significant media coverage of decision has proven. "Free" is a commodity; consumers have come to expect it-and distrust it. Most interesting is that the penny investment may pay off in more ROI than any other pricing decision the CU makes.

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