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Lenticular Images: Two Views Of Credit Unions

William AzaroffComment

Remember when you were a kid, you'd open your box of Cracker Jacks and hope for a cool prize, and were a little disappointed when instead you found a little photo tucked into a sealed plastic envelope. The photo was kind of cool—if you looked at it from one side it had one image, but if you tilted it to the other side, it would have a different image. A neat trick.

This kind of image, by the way, is called a lenticular image, two images printed on a raised, scratchy surface, each viewable from a different angle.

It struck me recently that credit unions are like that. Two totally different images printed on a single card.

You look at a credit union from a certain angle and we're dedicated to community, focused on doing good things with our members' collective assets. We can help our members because there are no shareholders siphoning anything from the relationship. No third party shifting priorities away from the member and their needs. We can give them advice and products and services in their own best interests. We care about community and are guided by the principles that govern co-operatives all around the world.

Pretty amazing.

But hold on, look at it from a different angle and you'll see a very risk averse culture, looking after its own needs more than the needs of the members. The Board and management hasn't changed in, what, 27 years—no competitive elections, even though we claim to be democratic. We make lending decisions almost exclusively on credit scores, unwilling so much of the time to do the bold and right thing for people in our communities who are struggling. And if a community organization knocked on our door with an interesting partnership opportunity to help the community at an essential level, they wouldn't even get their call returned. 

Pretty cynical.

I speak at conferences, and obviously conferences that would have a whacko like me speak are already attuned to a pretty strong community ethic, perhaps even with a social justice focus. And I connect with people who understand that what I'm talking about is their purpose too. They see a kinship between what I'm talking about and what their credit union does. And it's heartening and we make a good connection. We're part of a movement. 

But after that initial good dialogue, we often go a little deeper, usually over drinks after the session is over, and they look at their work from a different angle and a different image emerges. They admit in frustration that nothing they work on in community is reflected in their organization's business plans. They can't convince their Board or executive that anything beyond auto loans is important. Sometimes they admit they their employees barely even recycle at their organization. And they say that they can't build any partnerships with substance.

I wonder to myself if this person is at the wrong organization given their passions, or if they're not effectively challenging the status quo, or doing a good enough job at proving why their community initiatives make organizational sense to unlock more energy and resources to support their work. I wonder if it's their organization or if it's them. In the end, I have no idea.

But this duality—this beating our chests about our superiority to banks, our inclusivity and our community work, in contrast to our quiet admission that we fail our members so much of the time when they need us most, and that our philanthropy consists pretty much of sponsoring golf tourneys—is puzzling.

It's more than puzzling. It's a pretty critical disconnect between what we believe about ourselves and how we actually act. A disconnect between our stated values and how we respond to the needs in our communities. That disconnect is a sign that we're not close to living out our potential and earning the trust of our members and communities. I wonder if this is a central reason why people continue to fail to understand what a credit union is. Both the public and our organization’s employees.

I hear talk that credit unions are the country's best kept secret. I wonder if that's true. Perhaps we’re not a secret at all. Maybe we're just not living out our core values in a way that resembles what we tell ourselves we do. If we judge ourselves more on actions than on words, then I believe that we would reap major rewards if we rose above complacency and pushed ourselves and each other to be bolder and demonstrate our values at every moment, every member interaction, every chance we get in community. If we choose to be of service rather than looking at our own needs. If we refreshed and vigorously renewed our Boards so they reflected what our communities look like today, and made sure that we behave like an active participatory democracy with real member engagement and outreach. If we did these things, we wouldn’t need to explain our differentiator.

People would get it, and both images would finally align.


William Azaroff lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He feels very fortunate to work at Vancity, where there is a values-based approach and this duality doesn't exist.