ALEXANDRIA, Va.-The recession taught State Department FCU that it's time to get even closer to members.

SDFCU has created a "Member Financial Advocate" position to address those members struggling with their credit and payments, and has also launched a series of seminars that apprise consumers of what they can get for free from the CU that will help them address their financial challenges.

Both efforts have helped it to improve members' finances, and in the process helped it to build stronger and deeper relationships while cutting CU losses and getting more loans approved, explained Veronica Trotta director of mortgages and loan administration.

Its efforts have earned the credit union a Best Practices Award from Credit Union Journal.

"We saw that our members weren't getting the type of financial advice and assistance needed in this tough economy," said Trotta. "The member financial advocate is intended not only to help our members struggling to make monthly payments, but also to assist those trying to repair their credit and obtain loans after a financial setback."


Too Many Loan Turndowns

The new financial advocate position was created in June of 2011 after the credit union realized it was turning down more members for loans. The service took off two months later, Trotta explained. In about a year 77 members have been counseled, and a number of new loans have been made as a result.

The counselor travels between branches meeting one-on-one with members and creating individual plans, which Trotta explained were not as uniform as the CU expected.

"Almost each case has been unique, with us looking for ways to get past the credit issues each borrower has," Trotta said. "For example, if they needed a loan to pay for their heating bills because they had lost their job, we told them if they took some of our financial education classes and cut expenses, such as eliminating the cable TV bill and showing us they did, we'd make exceptions. It involved us almost holding their hands. Many times we just went in and really dug into their checking account to see where problems lay."

The service also apprised members of support they could receive outside the credit union, such as government assistance programs. The $1.5-billion State Department FCU, too, realized that not enough members realized the availability of free CU services designed to provide members with convenience and savings, and created a "Making the Most of Your Membership" seminar series.


Explaining What's Available

The program provides an overview of the ranges of CU services designed to deliver members convenience and savings, such as credit and debit rewards programs, the CU's low- or no-fee philosophy, a real estate agent rebate program and financial planning.

"With a large member base overseas, seminar attendees are always thrilled to know that we have no foreign transaction fees on credit card purchases, a no annual fee credit card, no balance transfer fees on our credit card, a $15 rebate on debit card fees with Advantage checking and numerous ways they can access their money, such as mobile banking," said Trotta.

The series, held at all five SDFCU branches, began in September 2011. Ten seminars have been held with an average of 14 members/non-members attending each event.

"Although, this seminar is conducted for our membership, we do extend it to consumers and have opened over 20 new memberships," Trotta told Credit Union Journal.

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