The Key to Credit Unions’ Future: Trust Each Other


Republished from

Three factors must combine to sustain a unique credit union system:

  1. Belief in the innovative power of cooperative design
  2. Leaders with vision to sustain cooperative purpose
  3. Effective governance centered on the roles of member-owners

This last characteristic often gets short shrift. Governance is usually thought of in terms of board effectiveness. That is one element. But in my view it is not the most important.

Effective governance must put the member-owner at the center of the process if it is to inspire the other two factors of cooperative uniqueness.

In for-profit firms, the primary performance driver is maximizing shareholder wealth. While many institutions may profess a wider mission, market realities sooner or later come back to this singular focus.

In credit unions, the vital role of the member-owner is often relegated to that of a “satisfied customer.” CEOs and boards are wary of member involvement beyond token ratification of the board’s election at the required annual meeting.

Without stimulating member awareness and involvement, the unique cooperative model can quickly run off the rails. Boards become closed shops. Directors serve for decades. Infrequent vacancies are filled with familiar colleagues.

This isolation from the members turns the credit union into an institution where financial performance is the primary success factor. “Mission” becomes a special project or a PR effort.

Examiners reinforce this focus. I have yet to see an exam that assesses cooperative contributions. This does not mean purpose is dead; it just suggests it is uniformed by continuous member engagement.

Member-owner participation as an essential cooperative process

An immediate way to start engagement is to treat members as interested owners. One way is publishing the quarterly financial outcomes on the web, and distributing them digitally, with a full discussion of what they mean.

After every calendar quarter, there is not a day that goes by without public companies, especially financial firms, announcing quarterly earnings, the reasons therefore, and their outlook . In credit unions, which must file financial call reports quarterly, there is comparatively total silence. Until some reporter seeks out the 5300 report for an article.

I have found one example of this SOP-private-company process in credit unions. When I asked the CEO why he sent a quarterly letter with full financials and commentary he replied:

  • They have reported to their member-owners every 90 days for the last 20 years. That is something they believe all coops should do.
  • They describe how they are responding to current events (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic) both financially and operationally.
  • The report is for personnel and team building, not a compliance requirement designed from a regulator’s point of view.
  • Numbers are the minimum baseline in relating to owners – the culture and heart of who they are is the relationship with their shareholders.

He wrote: “Member involvement is a real living tactic for us… reach for shared strategic hopes is a win-win model for every stakeholder. We see each other, talk to each other, and trust each other.”

A basic step in real democratic governance

This one tactic is an easy first step for every credit union to take. It would begin to broaden the concept of cooperative governance with the constituency that matters the most: the member-owner. Most importantly, it would show “we trust each other.”


  • Chip Filson

    A nationally recognized leader in the credit union industry, Filson is an astute author, frequent speaker, and consultant for the credit union movement. He has more than 40 years of experience in government, financial institutions, and business. Chip co-founded Callahan and Associates. Filson has held concurrent positions at the NCUA as president of the Central Liquidity Facility and Director of the Office of Programs, which includes the NCUSIF and the examination process. He holds a magna cum laude undergraduate degree in government from Harvard University. After being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, he earned a master’s degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University in England. He also holds an MBA in management from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School in Chicago.

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