by: Hilary Reeves, Consultant, CU Breakthrough
The debut of the family history research website Ancestry.com marked a happy day in my household. After years of scrawling information on sticky notes after cornering my grandparents at family gatherings, I finally had a way to flesh out and store an accurate family history. It has since become a bit of an obsession. Almost every evening, I sit down after dinner and work on piecing together my family tree, branch by branch, story by story. And almost every evening, I learn something about my family that I didn’t know before.
Perhaps the pinnacle of my research came when I was able to prove a longstanding family rumor that our West Virginia roots branched off the famous McCoy lineage. An exhaustive document chase proved that my fifth great-grandfather, John McCoy, was brother to Asa Harmon McCoy and Randolph McCoy, who sinned opposite William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield in our country’s most famous family feud.
While knowing the names and stories of my ancestors doesn’t impact me at all on a day-to-day basis, the information helps me feel connected to something bigger than myself and a place – Kermit, West Virginia – that I’ve never been. Something tells me that things in Kermit are a bit different than in Seattle. After I learned that my great-grandfather lost his leg in a Mingo County coal mine, I started to daydream about the generations-strong family traits that must somehow live it me: a love of family and history, a willingness to work hard, and – very important in my profession – the ability to spin a good yarn.
Reimagining “About Us”
Many credit unions have similar proud, rich “family” histories. Much like any single branch on a family tree, credit unions are born and grow, with plenty of victories – and trials – along the way. Unfortunately, these wonderful storied histories are often stripped down to an awkward “About Us” paragraph, pumped full of dry facts and buried at the bottom of the contact page on their websites, or stuck in as filler at the tail end of marketing materials. Ask yourself, “Does our ‘About Us’ section really represent what we’re about?” If the answer is “no,” then you’re not telling your credit union’s story. Get busy.
The first step in reconnecting and leveraging your unique history is locating the best information. While names, dates and events are the easiest to get, names and dates alone do not a story make. A quick sit-down with one of your credit union’s original leaders, founding members or longtime employees will help turn a timeline into an original anecdote. Try adding a photo or a narrative. Identify your credit union’s unique founding story, trials overcome, important victories and lessons learned – while the founders are still around to tell of them.
When you have a more complete and renewed sense of your history, shatter the “About Us” mold. Think about other ways to display your proud history. I have two little girls, and when my eldest was born, I created and framed a family tree poster in her nursery so that she could see the faces of distant family members every day. An old-fashioned plaque just outside your lobby doors, a coffee-table book that members can browse, or an expanded online section are just a few of the creative ways you can pay homage to your roots.
Making the connection
I certainly acknowledge that there are those of you who think you have better, more important things to do than spend a morning chatting with old members, or labor over piecing together a timeline of your credit union’s important milestones. Trust me, you don’t. In my experience, there is nothing more important to the credit union movement, and to people as a whole, than discovering and internalizing where they came from. From the Oregon-based credit union whose leaders have, for generations, helped the working poor finance the steel-toed boots they need to hammer iron, to the New York credit union founded by and for teachers trying to positively impact the hand-to-mouth culture of the surrounding county, there is nothing more important than the proud history of credit unions.
Exploring, enriching and displaying your history will please longtime members, attract potential members who want to become a part of a financial family, and also remind your team – from the person who writes press releases, to the CEO, to the brand-new teller – who you are and where you’ve been. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire a widespread desire to emulate outstanding traits that turned credit unions into the widespread beacon of selfless service that they are today.
Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a journalist before leaving the newsroom to become a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as a consultant for CU Breakthrough, a service of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. Reeves lives in Seattle with her husband and two young daughters. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. CU Breakthrough™