Credit Union Ownership Education and Assuming the Obvious

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When it comes to Cooperative Principle five: Education, Training, and Information, credit unions often check that box through financial literacy programs and related educational opportunities for their members. While the importance of such offerings should not be downplayed (after all, April is Financial Literacy Month), financial empowerment education only satisfies one aspect of a member’s role at the credit union.

Any credit union industry employee worth their salt should be able to note that members serve two very important roles at their credit union as both member and owner. While the majority of credit unions are up to snuff on education in relation to the first role (if your credit union is not, here are some ways to get started), they often fall short or entirely neglect education on the owner role.

But what is the purpose of ownership education? Shouldn’t the concept be self-explanatory? If a member is joining a credit union instead of a bank, surely they understand the difference enough to know they are part owner of their credit union. Members equal owners. Easy peasy. 

Not so fast.

Skipping over “the obvious”

The first mistake anyone can make when it comes to education is assuming the level of knowledge an individual has. Assuming everyone knows what credit unions believe to be “the obvious,” those topics are often skipped over, and can leave gaps in knowledge for those who did in fact not know “the obvious.”

Take ownership as an example. Members equating to owners is the obvious here, something so ingrained in the foundation of credit unions, it fails to occur to many that it may not be so clear cut to newcomers or even a credit union’s most loyal members. Because it is seen as the obvious, it is never taught or explained, and uninformed members walk around with absolutely no idea they are owners or how to get involved.

Earlier this year, I was discussing this exact topic with a few credit union board members. Both cited issues in getting members involved in the democratic process of credit unions—struggling to find new board members, not attending meetings, not stepping into the role of an owner overall, etc. 

I followed up by asking if they believed their members knew there were leadership positions for them to assume. Were they educated in their role in the credit union? Did they know there were meetings to attend? Did they know the stake they have? Did they know why they were getting dividend checks? 

In response, both confirmed they believed that failure to participate mostly came down to a lack of understanding on the member’s part about what a member is and what it means in terms of credit union ownership.

But what exactly were their credit unions doing on a day-to-day basis to rectify the situation? What were they doing to actively educate their members on what an owner is? Were they offering information and education at the time of the member’s account opening? Were they sending emails with this information? Did they have website banners, branch posters, or events discussing the ownership role? 

These questions were met with a few moments of silence. After all, shouldn’t ownership be obvious?

Time to teach the obvious

I have belonged to my credit union for multiple years now, albeit, an large one in which getting a board position would be near impossible. Throughout that time, I have received hundreds—if not thousands—of marketing emails about loans that I could take through them about new accounts I could open, etc. That said, I can assure you that I have never once received an email about an upcoming board meeting or about my role as a member-owner. (I did get one about Financial Literacy Month though, so bonus points there!)

When was the last time your credit union launched a sincere and honest campaign in an attempt to draw more members into the democratic ownership process? To inspire them to assume their ownership role? Do you advertise board meetings (and advertise them well)? Do you advertise board elections? Do you send educational emails on this information as often as you send marketing emails about your loans? 

More than likely, I would guess the answer is no, and that is an incredible problem. It means that maybe credit unions have missed the obvious this time as well: our members are our owners, and every aspect of the credit union and cooperative principles should take that into account, including education and information. 

The good news is if your credit union is not currently involved in ownership education for your members, there are some easy ways to get started! 

The simplest solution would be to offer this education at the time of the member’s account opening. If they open in person, have a teller or other credit union staff member take a few minutes to explain the ownership aspect of membership to them. What it means, how they can get involved, how they benefit from being an owner, etc. I might suggest having some materials for them to read over or take with them. Even a simple informational flyer could do the trick here. A few posters or prominently displayed informational materials spread around your lobby for older members to see and pursue would be helpful as well.

Another easy way to reach new and old members alike would be to start a social media or email marketing campaign. Advertise their ownership role to them with social media graphics, provide links to informational pages, and let them know when your next annual meeting is. Don’t keep that information hidden under dozens of pages on your website or require members to reach out to learn these details.

Is the result worth the effort?

Now, some may argue that even if members are educated on their ownership role, that does not equate to a desire to participate on their end. Maybe they are right. Maybe it does simply come down to a lack of interest on the members’ part instead of a lack of education. 

Even if members are educated on the ways of the credit union, they still might not be attending your annual meetings or running for board positions. And while that outcome may be disappointing, credit unions can rest easy knowing they fulfilled their responsibility and will continue to do so. But no matter how hard you try, a relationship of any kind—including a credit union and their member/owners—requires effort from both parties to be successful.  

You could educate 1,000 members on what it means to be an owner and only have two interested when all is said and done. But then, isn’t that two more than the credit union had before? It’s not our job to decide if the education is worth the end result. We don’t educate for what the credit union may get in return, we do it because it is a core aspect of our foundations and our members absolutely should be informed and educated on their ownership rights.

Members are owners, owners are members

All this to say that as a credit union, your commitment to educating your members on their ownership role, to encouraging your members to take on that ownership role, to including your members in all ownership aspects (including annual meetings) should never be seen as burdensome and should be a main priority of your credit union all day, every day. You should be sending emails weekly about these; you should be advertising your board meetings regularly. 

And if a credit union is not doing so, if they are not deeply involving themselves and concerning themselves with the ownership side of member-owners, then they are the ones who have missed “the obvious” this time.

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