Problem members vs. members with problems

Like many of my past articles, the inspiration for this topic came from my friend and business partner, Alison Carr.

Recently, Alison shared a conversation she was part of at a DE (CUDE) poverty simulation training. The takeaway from the conversation was that credit union members often viewed as “difficult” or “problems” are human, and shouldn’t be seen solely as the challenges they wear. They are people who’ve had struggles and are coming for assistance. As credit unions, we need to shift our perspective and offer empathy to those members, helping them overcome a challenging point in their lives.

Clarity of Mission, and a culture to embrace it

The credit union movement in the United States is here today because of its mission to serve people of modest means, many of whom had financial struggles and were deemed unworthy by mainstream banks at the time. Without that mission, the Federal Credit Union or state charters would likely not have been approved. Serving people of modest means and individuals with real financial problems is in our DNA.

Today, access to quality financial products to consumers with abundant means is easy. Consumers with excellent credit, good income, savings, home ownership, and other assets have countless opportunities wherever they please, each provider actively competing to serve them.

What remains difficult to find (and increasingly so) are non-predatory financial institutions that have empathy for people of modest means with difficult financial problems, such as poor credit following a medical issue, no credit, divorce, very little savings, or a low income that makes managing money and paying for life’s necessities very difficult.

What is the culture at your credit union? How do you and your team view members of modest means with financial problems? Are they brushed off (or fee’d out) as “problem members?” Or are they sincerely valued as “members with problems” that you want to help solve? Does your team have empathy for members regardless of their situation?

I had the opportunity to spend time with the Sierra Pacific FCU team last week. It was a great day and the team was able to really get at the heart of why they exist as a credit union, what really matters, and what makes them different. Of the many great comments made throughout the day, I was most struck by two. First, by Megan Mathias, Director of Lending, who passionately shared that the first thing she does when working with a member who has a serious problem is to mentally put herself in that person’s shoes, and second focus on finding a solution. Empathy that leads to action belongs in credit unions and should be part of our serving-people-of-modest-means cultures! The second comment that really struck me was by CEO Jim Hunting, who said that his team exists to “attack (and solve) member problems.” Attack is a very strong word, and when he described what that looks like at Sierra Pacific FCU, I believe him.

Why it matters

This week our trade leaders made it clear (again) to congress that the credit union industry still exists to serve people of modest means. CUNA President/CEO Jim Nussle said, “our research also shows that community charters excel in their mission to ensure low-income populations have access to the financial system.” I couldn’t agree more. Credit unions are doing amazing work in reaching out and serving people of modest means. Across the country, credit unions are moving into low-income communities, just as many of the local banks have moved out because that low-income community wasn’t profitable enough (at least that’s what the community that was left behind will tell you). These credit union stories are inspiring, and reflect a mission of serving people of modest means.

We must use these opportunities (i.e. tax threats) for an internal reality check. While we are collectively doing great things and clearly have more than earned our collective tax status, there is still more work for credit unions to do. I believe it’s very important that more credit unions return to our roots of serving people of modest means. When too many of us look like a “duck,” it breeds taxation concerns.

As a movement (or industry), if we were to redraw the Little Man cartoon to reflect the members we strive to serve today (supporting our tax-exempt status), what would we draw? Well-Off Man? Platinum Credit Woman? Retired RV Person? Wealthy Business Owner?

The reoccurring tax debate creates important reminders for us to refocus our efforts on solving many of the large financial problems in our members’ (and potential members’) lives, such as affordable housing, regular savings, affordable transportation, and avoiding or getting out of predatory lending. My concern is those among us who see people of modest means with real-life financial challenges as “problem members.” This should matter to us, because the level of our relevancy to society (and our tax status) is determined by the degree of the problems we solve.

Scott Butterfield

Scott Butterfield

Scott is the Principal of Your Credit Union Partner, PLLC. Your Credit Union Partner (YCUP) is a trusted advisor to the leaders of more than 100 credit unions located throughout ... Web: Details