Generosity, consideration, concern for others. This is kindness, and perhaps, the boiled-down definition of the credit union difference. Credit unions around the world have worked to bring awareness to the credit union difference, the compassionate banking alternative, through charitable events, open houses and over 70 years of International Credit Union Days. Credit unions are proud of the difference they bring to a community, and yet good work often goes hand-in-hand with humility. Shouting “giveback” from the rooftops is hardly in the charitable spirit, and certainly not in that of the credit union, but perhaps, as we enter the ‘Giving Season’ – a time when one-third of all individual gifts are given for the year – we should give credit to the credit union kindness difference, and a pay it forward movement that is growing quickly.
MN: Trendsetters of Kindness
Minnesota CU FORWARD® Day
“Organically but with intention.” This is how Minnesota Credit Union Network describes the goals of their annual giveback day, and this is exactly how it began. In 2012 Affinity Plus conceived of Plus it Forward; a unique way to support the community it served, and give back in a meaningful way. The second Monday of October has widely been treated as a bank holiday, and while branches were open for members, Affinity Plus saw an opportunity to close all branches and sponsor employees to go out into the community, celebrate and support those that they serve. Seeing great success and a warm reception, the credit union suggested growing this into a state-wide concept, credit unions coming together to spread kindness.
In 2017, Affinity Plus gifted the one-day initiative to Minnesota Credit Union Network, an organization already committed to serving as an unbiased third-party, advocating for and dedicated to showcasing the true differences of credit unions. The newly minted CU FORWARD Day brought the credit unions together, across the state, to spread kindness in the community. Having grown significantly, 2019 saw a day of magnificent impact with participation from 60 credit unions partners. Over 4,000 employees, family members and friends participated in over 20,000 hours of volunteerism, with an estimated 300,000 individuals impacted in this single day – through both organized and random acts of kindness.
“CU FORWARD DAY is an opportunity to offer that surprise and delight that we’re all looking for” said Ben Hering, Director of Engagement for Minnesota Credit Union Network. Whether paying for groceries for a family at the checkout line, or making a charitable donation, giving is often intangible, random acts of kindness and everyday giving is hard to quantify, but every gesture by a credit union employee made a difference. In 2019, MnCUN arranged for credit unions to come together in collaborative initiatives. Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank able to provide 3 meals from every $1, hosted over 180 volunteers from 15 credit unions and industry partners, who came together for the simple activity of packing up food. Food which is then distributed to food shelves across the state, “Our aim was to offer an activity that any credit union could feel an attachment to, not only based on the initiative, but knowing that the food was going into their communities throughout MN,” says Ben Hering.
Spreading that kindness further
Mark Cummins, CEO of MnCUN has put to his team a call of action, to share the knowledge, resources and support developed for CU FORWARD Day, openly, generously and freely. “We gain the greatest impact as an industry if we can find initiatives like CU Forward Day to share, with all credit unions, to advance the credit union mission,” says Cummins.
The concept has begun to take hold in other states. To an outsider, Missisippis’s ‘Day of Service’ and Illinois’ marking of the same day might seem isolated events, but these individually branded days are developed with and supported by resources, logistics and guidance from Minnesota Credit Union Network.
At the end of 2018, Illinois Credit Union League started preparation for their first CU Kind Day. “When we saw the awesome stuff that Minnesota was doing, we thought ‘how cool is that?! We could do that, why aren’t we doing that?!” says Staci Hering, Outreach & Engagement Coordinator for the Illinois Credit Union League. The inaugural CU Kind Day in 2019 celebrated giving in all forms, from cash donations, to cleaning up state parks, working on building restorations, or volunteering at community centers. The league then created an online photo album to share these stories, across the state, and showcase credit unions supporting their communities in ways that they valued. In the creation and planning of the day, Illinois Credit Union League reached out to the Minnesota Network, and in the cooperative spirit of credit unions, worked together to create a sister program. “We’d experienced our own bumps and bruises in the creation and growth of CU FORWARD Day. As a movement we thrive on collaboration and at the network, we saw this as an opportunity to gain national participation” said Ben Hering.
2020: Continuing the spread of kindness
From Minnesota, to Illinois, the movement of focussed kindness continues to grow. Representatives from the two states met some “amazing young leaders from Mississippi and they were fired up to make it happen”, shared Staci, and she was enthused. “Let’s talk about it!”
It is important for each program to develop their own identity, but the focus remains the same; People Helping People. These days aren’t just about giving back, but also an opportunity to create awareness, a chance to showcase what credit unions do every single day. By highlighting one day a year, credit unions, their partners, and their leagues can maximize both exposure and impact. The story is old but true, the impact is magnificent when working cooperatively.
Even with continuing growth and excitement, maintaining kindness when faced with personal threats is obviously difficult – whatever the source. This year has been unpredictable, and generosity, consideration and concern for others sometimes isn’t the first thought of the morning. However, credit unions persist, and as Staci Hering says, “We’re reminding everyone that the ‘People Helping People’ philosophy knows no bounds. We don’t view obstacles as reasons to not do good, but a motivation to do even better. Our credit unions have taken to that, and nobody has taken the easy way out.”
Credit unions are sometimes characterized as the ‘white hats’ of banking, and this year whether masking-up or staying socially distanced, credit union kindness persists and grows.
For Illinois, 2020’s CU Kind goal was to turn the initiative into a year-round celebration, and to use CU Kind Day as an opportunity to celebrate all the good work that credit unions do every single day with one “really big blow-out”. Now, with a party off-limits, CU Kind Day is championing charities across the state, creating shopping wishlists with diverse and valuable nonprofit organizations. This year’s goal is to engage the credit unions in purchasing all items from all wishlists by the end of the day on CU Kind Day. “Our communities are facing many challenges this year beyond the virus, but ‘people helping people’ knows no bounds. That is why we were very intentional with the organizations we selected with the hope that CU Kind Day will reach and support a broad spectrum of needs.” The giveback however isn’t limited to this one act, and the league is launching an app to capture and share all the ways in which people are caring for their community, placing credit union kindness at the forefront of helping people feel comfortable and confident.
Minnesota has had to put on hold their in-person volunteering events, especially those planned with Second Harvest Heartland, and the handling of food. This year the focus will be two-fold, handing the reins to the employees and their charitable instincts, and tapping into the power of the expansive membership. “That is really where the potential is for the greatest impact,” said Ben Hering of MnCUN. “We certainly have many more members than we have employees. If we can get our members on board who are generally as passionate – if not more passionate than some of us – I wouldn’t be surprised if our members are the ones helping to lead and create a positive impact in their communities.”
Engaging the power of membership
This year, the Minnesota Credit Union Network is launching a giving campaign called CU FORWARD + Member Giving, to engage members in ‘social-distanced giving’ by partnering with NetGiver. NetGiver is an exclusive-to-credit unions charitable giving app enabling credit union members to make donations to any 501(c)(3) nationwide, directly from their credit union account, anytime and anywhere, fee-free. “NetGiver aligns with the Network’s give back philosophy by starting engagement that will mobilize our members. When we’re looking at the quantifiable ways in which we’re able to capitalize on our member’s participation, NetGiver is a unique and powerful tool that helps our member’s understand what credit unions are trying to do.” says Ben Hering. Kindness is often unquantifiable, so often these moments are hard to capture, but “to be able to use an app like NetGiver to track donations and impact, we can meet our members where they are; which is on their phones.”
“NetGiver helps credit unions live out the ‘People Helping People’ promise, every single day,” says Eric Berg, President of the NetGiver CUSO. This year’s emphasis will be to support two organizations; Second Harvest Heartland and the two area-chapters of Ronald McDonald House. Second Harvest Heartland provides assistance to those struggling with food scarcity and Ronald McDonald House supports families with immunocompromised children. NetGiver credit unions will be featuring these causes in the giving app and supporting this with messaging from the Minnesota Credit Union Network, NetGiver and the participating credit unions.
Every contribution from a member is valuable. By showcasing our support, we can prove our commitment to our community in a new and unique way. “Partnering with nonprofits like Second Harvest Heartland and Ronald McDonald House gives members the option to not only give back, but to give back as a community to some hard-hit organizations,” said Berg. Donations made through NetGiver are given freely and fully, with 100% going to the nonprofit of choice, at no cost to the member or the charity.
“If we can help our members engage in CU FORWARD and the credit union movement, we can provide an opportunity for our members to look deeper, at all the other things that we’re doing through the initiative, and every day at a credit union.
Future of CU FORWARD
“As the compassionate banking alternative, credit unions are accountable to their members. If spreading acts of kindness better helps people understand what it is to be a member of a financial cooperative, there is an opportunity to reach more people within our communities.” Ben Hering’s vision for the future is to continue the facilitation of similar initiatives, and he eventually hopes to see “all 5,000 plus credit unions across the nation coming together to give back”. The creation and running of these days of awareness and generosity are not only an “empowering opportunity” for those participating, “but a truly great way to make a mark on a movement that you’re passionate about.” said Staci Hering.
“We’re always looking for ways to continue growing our outreach efforts and make giving back simple and fun for our credit union members. I am always so inspired by the dedication our credit unions demonstrate when giving back to their communities, and am excited to see how CU Kind Day will continue to grow from year to year.”
Minnesota’s role in the growth continues by genuinely providing guidance for other credit unions and other states that want to get involved. It is a call to action of the CEO of MnCUN, Mark Cummins, to advise other leagues, share resources and provide guidance to facilitate new iterations of CU FORWARD. “At this point, credit unions are a small slice of the financial services pie, but thinking about the significant impact that could be made if we came together as a nation of credit unions, a nation together with our members. One thing I keep with me day in and day out in my work in the credit union space is something that somebody once asked me: ‘why isn’t everyone a member of a credit union?’ I don’t have an answer for that.”
Credit unions are the lighter side of financial institutions, and by leading the way with CU FORWARD, generosity, consideration, and concern for others, perhaps everyone will see the value of a credit union.