DENVER—Advocacy needs a new definition in 2015, and that means credit unions can no longer rely on just sending a check to their trade associations and state leagues, expecting them to get the job done with regulators and legislators.

"The way we've been doing it isn't working," CUNA CEO Jim Nussle said in his address to the general session here at the joint America's Credit Union Conference/World Council of CUs Conference.

"We've got whole new challenges we're going to have to meet in the future that our current structure, our current way of operating won't get done," Nussle said. "Yes, your [state] association has work to do. But I'll tell you straight out, you've got work to do, too. And I'll say this as plainly as I'm thinking it: If you think you can send a check to your association and that's all you need to do, just signing the bottom of that check—I will cash it, as will my league partners—but that's not enough. That's not good enough."

Nussle's remarks to thousands gathered at the Colorado Convention Center come at a time when CUNA is under immense pressure, having already started a process of restructuring itself, including eliminating positions, redefining job descriptions and realigning the organization, but also as NAFCU has opened its membership to state-chartered CUs, raising questions about the role CUNA and the state league system will play in advocacy efforts moving forward.

Nussle reminded that when the first Hike the Hill happened nearly 30 years ago "it was state of the art." But in 2015 advocacy is more than just talking points and public policy.

Despite more than 100 million members, credit unions continue to struggle with an awareness gap. "Maybe it's because of the modest nature" of credit unions that they're shy about touting the good work they do, he suggested

Nussle pointed to the argument that what credit unions do sells itself, but reminded if CUs today aren't creating communities to create awareness, they won't sell much at all.

"In this day and age … if you can't break through the clutter to explain the credit union difference to a whole new generation, we've got problems," he said. What helps, he added, is that credit unions in South Dakota, for example, face many of the same challenges as credit union in Florida, and it's up to trade groups, state leagues and member credit unions to pull together to solve those challenges.

One of the major hurdles facing the movement, he said, is that the banks have shifted their strategy toward state-level fights, waging a war against the tax exemption state-by-state.

"The bankers have been smart—they want to take our market share and take away what they think is an unfair advantage, and that is our cooperative structure," said Nussle. "So they're attacking us state by state, and we have to think of new way to deal with that as opposed to just the advocacy in Washington."

No One-Stop-Shop

Not that advocacy isn't important in Washington, he said, but it can't just come from the trade association.

"I can give you all the talking points in the world, I can go in and talk to every Congressman, every Senator, all the regulators, but the difference is the credit union difference; the difference is how you serve your members, and when we lead with storytelling, that's advocacy."

Long before coming to CUNA, Nussle was a Congressman from Iowa, elected to the House the same year as House Speaker John Boehner.

"Can I call him on my phone? Yes. Will he take my call? I think so," quipped Nussle. "Yes, he will take it—if he's not busy fighting the Democrats. But the first question he's going to ask me is 'What do my credit unions in Ohio think about it?'."

Nussle wrapped up his remarks by emphasizing that CUs can learn from a pair of organizations they might not have a lot in common with—the AARP and the NRA.

"If the AARP comes to Washington and says 'Don't touch Social Security,' the capitol dome starts shaking; if the NRA comes to Washington and says 'Don't touch my guns,' the capitol dome starts shaking," he said. And the reason that happens is because they're speaking with the voice of millions of members. And credit unions need to do the same.

"We've got to engage not only our CEOs and our board members and our employees, but the 100 million members pulling that wagon to get the job done."

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