After 35 Countries In 8 Years, Kitsch Goes Home To Florida

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Lois Kitsch, who has spent the past several years working to found credit unions in Afghanistan, has taken a new position with the Filene Research Institute that she says will keep her closer to her Florida home.

Kitsch, whose credit union work has taken her to 35 different countries in eight years as the international projects development manager of World Council of Credit Unions, has been named director of special projects, a new position to turn ideas generated by Filene into tangible programs for credit unions to utilize.

"The opportunities and needs are there," said Bob Hoel, Executive Director at Filene. "With Kitsch as part of the Filene team, we now have a greater ability to take promising information from original research and then further refine and field test it."

The Initial Project

Her initial project is REAL Solutions, a program that implements and refines transaction and savings products for low-income households. Building on insights obtained from field-testing, she intends to help credit unions develop loyal, income-producing members.

"Understanding how best to engage these underserved markets has both short-term and long-term potential for credit unions," Kitsch said. "Our goals are ambitious, but the outcome will enable credit unions to both broaden and deepen their member base, and ultimately serve their members better."

Kitsch, who also previously served as president of Sarasota Municipal Employees CU in Sarasota, Fla., said she would like to initially partner with three of four CU leagues who can help locate credit unions in low-income areas willing to participate.

Then, with a year's worth of "sound samples of success," she said, she's hoping one of the partners will take the program nationwide.

The project goal is to provide guidance, business models, training, products and services that will help CUs attract and serve low-income households, including those who are unbanked.

It's no secret that millions of low-wealth Americans rely on alternative financial institutions. But, with so many practicing opportunistic, even predatory, business practices, many aren't getting the service they deserve, she said.

But, truth be known, it's not easy for credit unions to attract them.

Kitsch said REAL Solutions could change that by encouraging CUs to understand and facilitate a path for these targeted members to get what they need.

Tactics Being Proposed

Among the tactics being proposed are extending hours of operation, implementing check-cashing and international remittance services, encouraging savings, offering small loans for credit building and larger loans for home ownership and asset accumulation.

"One of the things we have found out, especially in the Hispanic market, it that you have to have bilingual staff," she said. "And you have to get involved in their communities, their special events, their fiestas."

In addition, she said, CUs need to have safe accounts (that don't pay interest and do require a taxpayer ID or social security number), transportation services such as bus passes, communications services such as phone cards and tax preparation services.

Kitsch said REAL Solutions also encourages credit unions to use "simple advertising" to attract their target audience. "For example, 'We cash checks' or 'we do payday loans'," she explained. "You want them to know that the shared services branches are places they can walk in and get service."

Kitsch said her home base will be in Florida, but she expects the job to require a lot of traveling. Only instead of going to places such as the Philippines, where she spent five years and Afghanistan, where she traveled four times in one year, she'll remain on American soil.

"I've been to the Philippines, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Poland, Macedonia, Australia, Ecuador, Nicaragua-all for credit unions," she said. "I miss it, and I miss the World Council, but I love what I do now."

Kitsch's work has included organizing and hosting international conferences and helping locals start their own credit unions. She is a 2004 recipient of the prestigious Herb Wegner Memorial Awards for Individual Achievement and her work in the Philippines received the Herb Wegner Memorial Award for Outstanding Project. The National Credit Union Development Education Program also gave her the Horizon Award. In addition, several Filipino cooperative organizations and public charities awarded her achievements.

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