Building a stronger state and federal advocacy machine

Having recently led a team through the combination of two successful organizations, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about mergers over the last two years. Now eight months into Cornerstone League’s merger with Heartland Credit Union Association, it’s evident how a strategic combination can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

On August 1, CUNA and NAFCU announced the two organizations intend to merge. As the current Vice Chairman on the CUNA Board of Directors, I am thrilled to have played a small role in this highly strategic combination.

Before the first discussion between the two executive committees in February 2022, I had little exposure to NAFCU other than seeing them quoted alongside CUNA on federal legislation and regulatory issues. In the months following our first meeting, I learned it’s a well-run organization that—like CUNA—comprises a team of talented professionals deeply committed to helping credit unions thrive.

In the initial conversations, the group quickly agreed on a strategic rationale which focused on building a superior model, and we referred to this frequently when tough decisions had to be made.

It wasn’t always easy. Having been a League President for the last six years, I am admittedly biased about the importance of the partnership leagues have with CUNA for the purpose of executing state and federal advocacy. NAFCU doesn’t have a formal relationship with leagues, so the two league representatives in the merger negotiations – Dakota Credit Union Association President/CEO, AACUL Chairman, and ex-officio CUNA Executive Committee and Board Member Jeff Olson and I – were careful to consider how that partnership might evolve as the two organizations came together.

During the negotiations, I was highly passionate about preserving:

  • The tight connection between the leagues’ adept boots-on-the-ground grassroots work and relationship-building within congressional districts and CUNA’s skillful navigation of Capitol Hill.
  • The leagues’ role as the “eyes and ears” for the system, spotting impending threats that could spread to other states, or metastasize into harmful federal legislation.

Jeff and I had the support of the additional League Presidents who serve on the CUNA board: Charles Elliott, Tom Kane, Fred Robinson, Debbie Painter, and Scott Simpson. We also carried the message to AACUL, where the other 25 League Presidents unanimously signed a resolution of support for the combination, expecting it will further strengthen an already-formidable advocacy machine for the betterment of credit unions. One way to view this combination is that it’s another step in the evolution of the CUNA/league system, which last reached a crescendo in 2015, when the requirement for dual membership in both the state league and CUNA was eliminated.

As often happens when you build something new, you need to let go of what came before. The new organization—America’s Credit Unions—will feature a smaller, reconfigured board of directors, and that new governance model is changing my personal path. Having worked my way through the table officer positions on the CUNA board, I had high hopes of being elected Chairman in 2024, but that will not be possible within the new organization.

What is much more important is that we truly are building a better model to serve America’s credit unions.

The transaction will soon be turned over to the members of each association for a member vote and I can envision a future when the two largest national advocacy organizations become one powerhouse entity that can claim:

  • One singular voice and message
  • One powerful communications effort
  • One unfragmented legislative agenda
  • One best-in-class compliance function

There are 137 million credit union members and 4,800 credit unions in the United States. The more cohesive we are, the more powerful our message is. This merger means members of both associations will benefit from a combined, unified organization with strategic alignment, greater efficiencies, and streamlined member engagement.

It has been an honor to work alongside the fine CUNA board members, especially my friend, CUNA Chairperson and Cornerstone member Lisa Ginter of Community America Credit Union in Kansas City. Lisa is a tireless, fierce leader and I was in awe of the way that she led us through the journey that began with former CUNA chairs Brad Green of Listerhill Credit Union and retired UFCU President/CEO Tony Budet.

The vision for America’s Credit Unions is to have a stronger voice and greater impact on federal and state advocacy. Aligning talent, services, and events to maximize value is part of that vision.

The future of the credit union movement is brighter than ever as we take this important step forward.

Caroline Willard

Caroline Willard

Caroline Willard is president and CEO of Cornerstone League, one of the largest and most influential trade associations in the United States. She took the helm of the association – which ... Web: Details