CU Water Cooler

Credit Unions Can't Be The Party Of Old White Men

Matt DavisComment

The morning after election day is euphoric for half of the electorate, and misery for everyone else. While the victors celebrate a hard fought battle and the pleasure of knowing that they bet on the right horse, the losing side is left to wonder what went wrong. That's exactly what's going on today. A presidential election that was supposed to be won by a razor-thin margin ended up being relatively lob-sided – especially considering the electoral college. Republicans seem as stunned as they are confused. All of the makings of victory were there for the Grand Old Party: an incumbent with less than a 50% approval rating, presiding over a country with high unemployment and weak consumer sentiment in an "it's the economy, stupid" poltical environment. Instead, the GOP has never seemed older, whiter, weaker, or male.

The problem is that true conservatism has nothing to do with race, gender, sex, or economic class. The idea is supposed to be that anyone in America, if he or she works hard, has a chance to thrive. Anyone who has a dream can pursue it. Anyone who seeks happiness can find it. Neighbors help neighbors not because they have to, but because they want to. Conservatives believe that government is supposed to be big enough to provide a safety net for those who cannot help themselves, but not bigger. Government should err on the side of freedom, not over-reaching and meddling.

That narrative has been lost. And in the hierarchy of those responsible, Republicans themselves are to blame. Nearly 1 in 5 voters were under 29. Of Americans under 30 who were eligible to vote, 49.3% exercized their civic duty, compared to just 36% of this group that voted in 1996. Young people voted against Romney by a 23-point margin. Women overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama, 55% to Romney's 43%. Unmarried women voted for Obama at a 2-to-1 clip. According to exit polls, less than 30% of Latinos and 10% of African Americans voted for Romney. Amazingly, non-whites were responsible for only 12% of Romney's vote total.

Credit unions have done the same thing. We can talk until we are blue in the face about how innovative, inclusive, cooperative, and compassionate credit unions are, but that doesn't make it true.

While the magnitude of these statistics may be surprising, their direction should not be. The story that Republicans only represent old, rich white men has been told (and lived) since before I was born. Whether this story is fair, true, or not is not the purpose of this post. Your brand is a collection of stories told by others about you. Actions that support those stories can make fiction fact. The GOP, through policy choices, an inconsistent demonstration of its founding principles, and an inability to control its narrative has become exactly what it is not: a party of old white men.

Credit unions have done the same thing. We can talk until we are blue in the face about how innovative, inclusive, cooperative, and compassionate credit unions are, but that doesn't make it true. We can ignore the fact that our boards are made up of old white men all we want, but it's still true. We can tell stories about the differences between credit unions and banks from a consumer's perspective, but until those differences are consistently demonstrated at all credit unions the public does not believe us. 

Credit unions are innovative. Credit unions are inclusive. We cooperate with one another, and deeply care about helping consumers that banks simply ignore. We have simply let the narrative get away from us. In too many cases we have looked at our founding principles as suggestions, not ways of life. We haven't held each other accountable for straying from the cause. We've at times become more concerned with self-preservation than service to those who truly need help in economic hard times. The great work by most credit unions gets canceled out by the unprincipled work of the few.

There has been so much talk of national branding campaigns at credit unions over the years, and so many reasons given for why it hasn't happened. Until there's consistent delivery of "credit unioning" that is clearly decipherable from banks at every touch point with every credit union, a national branding campaign can't work. Over the last four years the narrative we have established is that credit unions lend only to the safest, most qualified borrowers. The story we have told is that the only economic problems that matter right now are the ones impacting our business model. The story is being written and directed by aging employees, directors, and members. Credit unions have become the party of old white men. 

Neither Republicans nor credit unions will ever win with that constituency.


Matt Davis lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the Innovation Director of the Filene Research Institute specializing in implementation. Matt presents, advises and completes project work with credit unions based on Filene's i3 ideas and innovative processes. The thoughts posted here are his own, and do not reflect those of his employer.