by: Nate Muniz, Public Relations Manager, PSECU
One thing I think everyone can agree on is that times and people change. However, I fully subscribe to the notion that forgetting one’s past, or worse yet willfully ignoring it, is a dangerous and irresponsible way to live one’s life. Which brings me to the first part of this column’s subject:
The men and women who founded the credit union movement in North America all shared a set of values. Alphonse Desjardins was spurred by his Catholic beliefs on social justice; Edward Filene, Roy Bergengren, and Louise Herring by the ideals of the Progressive Era. They believed in social reform and the role that cooperative entities could play in bringing about such change. To them cooperatives, in this case credit unions, were more than just financial institutions. Living in a time when “small borrowers” and low-income/working-class individuals had limited access to fairly priced financial services, they understood the positive impact credit unions could have on the lives of their members.
But I wonder if we as credit unions still hold these same ideals. It seems that sometimes we lose sight of them in the pursuit of other goals. When I see so much emphasis on things like increasing the bottom line through non-interest income, or adding fees for basic services like paper statements, it makes me have a “what would Filene do” moment.
Democracy and Sausage
Credit unions, like our country, are structured as representative democracies. Representative democracies require the participation of the citizens, in our case, the membership. All of the credit union pioneers understood this and spent many years travelling thousands of miles recruiting members, organizing advocates, and lobbying their elected officials to enable the system that we have today.
But with such wide participation, and many divergent views, you’re going to get something that can sometimes be a bit messy. It reminds me of the quote about making laws and making sausage. But being messy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. Member participation and democratic control is what makes us cooperatives. However, when I see certain executives referring to member-driven campaigns as “disruptive” or even attempting to subvert them, I again wonder what our (credit union) founders would have thought.
I think as we continue our day-to-day work to grow our credit unions and serve our members we should ask ourselves if the way we are operating is truly in line with the philosophies of our founders. There’s nothing inherently wrong with increasing product and service usage, loan and membership growth, or even political and grassroots advocacy. But we must remember that all of these things are the means to the end, not the end itself. Desjardins once said, “A credit union is not an ordinary financial concern, seeking to enrich its members at the expense of the general public. Neither is it a loan company, seeking to make a profit at the expense of the unfortunates…The credit union is nothing of the kind; it is the expression in the field of economics of a high social ideal.” Or to put it more simply and to quote the New York City hardcore band, H20, “Don’t forget your roots.”
Opinions expressed are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the institution.
Nate Muniz joined the credit union industry in 2004 and is Public Relations Manager at Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union (PSECU). With a background in government and politics from his time on Capitol Hill, he monitors federal and state legislation and communicates with members about how these issues affect the credit union. His specific area of focus with government relations is grassroots and member mobilization. He can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.