Before I started working at my current credit union seven years ago, I had limited exposure to credit unions. I was attracted to them because of their social mission, and I sometimes wrongly assume that all credit unions are steadfastly focused on their mission of funding the local, ethical, sustainable economy. I have long found it concerning that so many credit unions share a common genesis story, about forming to serve a group of people who couldn't get financing from mainstream financial institutions. And many of them no longer need to serve that need, and have not identified a new need they uniquely can serve. And so they seem to have lost their way, and look inward for reasons for their own survival, rather than focusing on the needs within their communities and memberships.
In the last year or so, I started to meet people from credit unions around the world and heard themes that sounded familiar. Talk of being a cooperative, of local community economic development, of core mission and purpose and vision.
Maybe it was the Great Recession, maybe it was the Occupy movement, maybe my ears are a little more finely tuned. Or, maybe it's a sign of the times, but at the CU Water Cooler Symposium this year, we had many of these needed discussions.
Ed Brett summed it up so well when he said that when credit union people get together, "We don't just talk about what we do, we talk about what we believe."
From the very first presentation by the increasingly brilliant Brent Dixon (have you listened to his new album? it's freaking amazing!) attendees and presenters alike seemed to be yearning for a more philosophical discussion about our soul. About our purpose as financial cooperatives. No one hid behind lightweight sessions about social media, account opening, security – all important topics to be sure, but not the critical issue credit unions need to address. A conversation about branding was really about discovering who your credit union really is, and who it was built to serve and communicating that. Conversations about employee development were really about what are you developing people to do. We had table conversations where people healthily wondered aloud if we had lost our way.
Thinking about Simon Sinek, this was a Why conference, not a How conference.
And throughout so many of the discussions, at one point or another, I thought to myself, My goodness, you could hear a pin drop in here. People were tuned in.
Credit union people sometimes argue about whether we're a movement or a system. I haven't really ever cared much about this conversation, but at the end of the conference it occurred to me: we were once a movement to be sure, but we devolved into a system and then further devolved into merely a subset of the financial services industry. But the people who came to Nashville a couple of weeks ago are the individuals spread out throughout the system who are the movement. We are tapping back into a core need where credit unions can be meaningful, relevant. Necessary, even.
We are thinking about the soul of our movement, not tax-free status. We are thinking about the role we play in society, not just our own efficiency ratios. We're thinking about our members' wellbeing, not just our own.
My hope, and I will be so truly disappointed if this fails to happen, is that at next year's CU Water Cooler Symposium we continue this important and needed conversation. I hope that the people who come are prepared for, and excited by that conversation. If you're interested in that conversation, please come and join us in 2013. It's a conversation long overdue, and very much needed in these times of economic uncertainty.
William Azaroff lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is Director, Business & Community Development of Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union. William works on a team overseeing Vancity's entire granting slate to develop members' communities, improve financial literacy, develop new businesses creating positive impact and, ultimately, to grow the Vancity brand and business.