More than a check

Nonprofits exist to serve. Credit unions have a strong tradition of giving back, and supporting the nonprofits that serve their community. The classic picture of a giant check has become a mainstay in the credit union industry, but what happens beyond the check? Is there a need for a different kind of giveback program? 

In studies performed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), it was reported that “while donors may not have the time to understand all the intricacies of a nonprofit’s work, nonprofit leaders suggest focusing on understanding the organization’s goals, asking about its greatest needs, and understanding the issue area(s) in which it works.” Financial gifts to a nonprofit are integral to a charities ability to execute on the core mission, however, there are other ways for credit unions to help address pain points that confront charities. CEP found that nonprofit CEOs “most desire help in fundraising, staffing, and communications,” and overall, there is a particular need for the latter two even more prevalent than the needs for funds.

In the spring of 2021, a new podcast was produced to explore relationships between credit unions and nonprofits. Seeking out stories from around the country, the Imagine the Difference podcast examines different models of robust and symbiotic relationships, providing insight for nonprofits and credit unions who wish to deepen a community partnership. The podcast has brought to light a few common themes and key takeaways around strengthening a nonprofit’s effectiveness on their mission and supporting a reciprocal relationship between nonprofit and credit union. 

Key takeaway: Support must start at the top

Empowered, passionate employees drive giveback engagement. Blue Federal Credit Union employees speak passionately about the consistent management support of their “crazy ideas.” Knowing that leadership stood with them allowed Pace Josey and Melodie Wright to think outside the box and make big, bold plans. Guardian taught us that empowered employees feel supported to go out on a limb for members (construction boot story). In a more restrictive environment, these employees would not feel safe to innovate and explore. 

Key takeaway: Relationships matter

In every story covered by Imagine the Difference, a quality relationship between credit union and nonprofit was carefully nurtured prior to major campaigns. Credit unions work with nonprofits on smaller initiatives, often for years, before partnering on a major giveback. Blue Federal Credit Union has maintained an ongoing relationship with Realities for Children. When the pandemic hit, the nonprofit was perfectly positioned to be a benefactor of their $200K match campaign.

Key takeaway: Employee buy-in is critical

When employees are a part of the giving, it strengthens relationships with nonprofits. An employee from Guardian Credit Union who cared about Montgomery Area Council On Aging (MACOA) facilitated an entire program being built into new credit union employee onboarding. Todd Barduson’s passion for equal access to youth sports and activities has driven MY Credit Union’s commitment to booster clubs. It has been shared again and again that when employees have a say in the partner nonprofits, it leads to improved employee morale and a stronger connection with the nonprofit.

Key takeaway: Communicate needs

Throughout the podcast, it is repeated in many ways that credit unions are better able to respond to needs when they know those needs exist. During the wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming, the American Red Cross did a fantastic job of clearly expressing what they were up against and what they needed in order to help displaced citizens. This allowed Blue Federal Credit Union to act swiftly and address the need of their community appropriately. The same advice goes to credit unions. In order to effectively manage the relationship, credit unions must be upfront with their expectations.

Key takeaway: Know your community

We have learned that credit unions who are in tune with the needs of their community are capable of making the biggest impact. Todd Barduson recognized that the rising cost of school activities was creating an equity gap for families in MY Credit Union’s locations, and worked with nonprofit partners to provide support. Through service on a number of local boards, Tara Dimick of Envista Credit Union is deeply ingrained in the Topeka community. She is well-positioned to spot opportunities for their monthly EnvistaCares challenge. We have seen that successful giveback programs don’t concentrate on one organization or category, but rather adapts to the needs of the community.

Key takeaway: Think creatively to address the real need

When the freezer at a food shelf fails, and all the food spoils, take a quick beat before writing a check. What are the real needs of the organization? Food needs to be replaced. The food shelf needs somewhere to store the food. Guardian Credit Union saw a need in their community and knew that simply providing a donation can saddle the nonprofit with decisions to make such as “what is the priority for these funds, where do we purchase from, how do we transport the items”, Guardian delivered a new freezer directly to the charity, reducing friction in a time of need. Being attuned to the needs of your partners helps to solve an immediate problem and tell a very compelling story to the community.

So what does this all mean? As credit unions seek to create the greatest impact, forget the giant check and focus on empowering employees, truly understanding communities, fostering mutually beneficial relationships, and encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.


You should probably still bring the giant check.  But understand that the financial contribution represents one small step in an ongoing journey.

Miriam Ackerman

Miriam Ackerman

Miriam Ackerman has been actively involved in developing creative products and business solutions for over 20 years. Her professional experience has carried her from the creative industrious, to sports, to ... Web: Details