CHICAGO — A customizable website to help credit unions promote financial education made the final three at this year's CO-OP THINK Prize.

"The idea is that it can be used by a number of different credit unions, but it would just be built off of one site template," said Sanam Kazi, author of the idea and project coordinator at Chicago Patrolmen's FCU. "Different credit unions could modify it to include their own logos, their own branding, even a bit of customization in how it looks, and they could customize the pieces they want to participate in."

The site is intended to be known as CU Thru (www.cu-thru.com), and will feature financial literacy information, goal-setting tools and more. It is also expected to have sections specifically targeted home buying, getting married, credit scores, retirement planning, saving and more.

Kazi added that various fields within the site could be changed so that credit unions could add or modify information as needed.

"Those customizable fields give credit unions a chance to soft-sell their own products at a time when members would be looking for it," she said. "You start with that education piece about 'Here's how to go about getting your first mortgage,' and then it leads into, 'Here's how to contact us about it.' And if credit unions didn't offer certain services, they could leave off that additional 'Contact Us' piece.

Currently on year No. 4, the CO-OP THINK Prize is part of CO-OP Financial Services' annual THINK Conference. Entrants submit ideas for innovations suitable for credit unions, from which three finalists are chosen. The finalists are voted on with the winner receiving a $10,000 prize from MasterCard. The winner will be announced during the 2014 THINK Conference, which runs May 19-23 in New Orleans.

Kazi told Credit Union Journal that the genesis for the idea dates back many years to her first job out of high school, when she worked at Members First Credit Union in Madison, Wis. 

She explained that all the SEG groups there were factories and the members blue-collar factory workers, and she learned a great deal about how money management can help someone have a high quality of life even if that person doesn't have a high household income.

"I would like it to be collaborative at the outset," Kazi said of the site. "To have a few credit unions who are interested in participating be the ones to collaborate and create the content initially." Beyond that, she said, the overall content would likely not need to change often, since the principles of financial literacy are fairly consistent.

Regarding development, Kazi said the site would likely be built along two tracks: the core content of the website — the consumer-facing side of it — would be developed by collaborating credit unions at the same time as the back-end content management system was set up that would allow participating credit unions to log in and manage the site.

Projected Costs
Kazi said she was unsure how much the site would cost to create, but said she suspected the $10,000 prize money would fuel a significant portion of the start-up costs, if not all of it.

As for credit unions, the site is designed to charge a flat $200 annual fee for each credit union using the site. She said she hoped that as many as 50 or 60 CUs might be willing to sign on up front to help fund the development of the site, with their annual fee helping to fund development and then counting toward usage of the site once it goes live.

One potential snafu with the competition is that neither the winner of the THINK Prize nor CO-OP or MasterCard is obligated to move forward with the winning project, and not all previous winners have progressed beyond the competition. But Kazi said that the project is such a no-brainer that, win or lose, she plans to pursue it

"I've had a lot of support from people at my credit union [and] other credit unions we collaborate with; the feedback has been really great," said Kazi. "When you walk out of there and you've got $10,000... I can see how it would be challenging to turn that into a feasible project, but I think this idea presented at a conference where everybody's like-minded and on board with something like this, I think it will generate enough interest to follow through with it."

Should she not win, Kazi noted that her CU is part of a police credit union collaboration unit — the Police Officers' Credit Union Association — which has been looking for more ways to collaborate, "so that's a great starting point of a group of people who may be interested in doing something like this," she said. She also said that forming a CUSO to get the project off the ground might also be an option.

"I think on the whole, between generating interest, signing people up and building out the two sites, a six-month period is realistic" for getting it up and running, she said.

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