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Mission Improbable

Matt DavisComment

Credit unions have mission statements all wrong. Missions have clear beginnings and clear endings. They either start or don't start. They can fail or be completed.

It's easy to know when you've started a mission. An action takes place. Your crew marches forward. Successes and failures and learning and growing happen.

Endings are easy to decipher as well. When Apollo 11 left earth for the moon, there was no mistaking the difference between a win and a loss—a success and a failure. The same is true in a game of chess, a marriage, or cleaning a bedroom. You either accomplished it, or you didn't. You have work left to do, or you don't.

"Build better lives through world-class service and convenience."

A quick search of the web finds credit union mission statements like "To empower members to achieve their financial goals" and "Build better lives through world-class service and convenience." The problem with these isn't in their aim. These are perfectly legitimate reasons for existing. The problem, instead, is that the outcomes are impossible to objectively measure. Subsequently, they're impossible to achieve.

I'd love to see a credit union mission statement like "ABC Credit Union exists to improve ownership of reliable transportation by single mothers in Atlanta, Georgia, by 25%" or "DEF Credit Union exists to improve the average Widgets'R'Us employee's net worth by $2,000 each year." These missions are specific, measurable, and realistic. Most importantly, they're meaningful.

There's a lot of talk in the non-profit world about Logic Models, a way of mapping out activities and their intended outcomes to better measure success. We can talk about the difference between credit unions and banks all we want, but until the intended and realized outcomes are truly different it will continue to be difficult for the public to understand. We spend a lot of time talking about activity, but way too little time discussing what activity yields. Worse, the measures we do use have nothing to do with our mission. No wonder the public is confused. We are too.

"That was fun, what problem should we solve now?"

I dream of a credit union system with 7,000 unique missions, each serving a unique segment in a customized way. I dream of an International Credit Union Day when we discuss progress toward those missions, celebrate successes, and work together to accomplish unfinished business. I dream of a board discussion that goes something like this, "That was fun, what problem should we solve now?"

The reason I dream is because I have to. Our mission statements suck.


Matt Davis lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the Director of Innovation 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.