As It Approaches 40, A Youth Movement Earns A National Honor

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MADISON, Wis. — The pursuit of young people to keep credit unions both alive and relevant has increasingly become the Holy Grail, especially since the average membership age continues to hover around 47 years old, well past the borrowing prime and 10 years older than the mean age of the US citizen, according to the U.S. Census.

Then there's the fact that 27% of the population is under 20 years old.

To grow and survive, the movement simply must attract young people. Many young people, however, continue to walk past the credit union's door without stopping.

If one asks credit unionists why this is so, the answer heard most often is that banks have more money for marketing to young people. The answer is more complex, of course, and the failure to draw youth has a number of reasons. The Desjardins Movement, for instance, records more than 70% of the population of the province of Quebec as members, including young people who join school credit unions at an early age to learn about financial literacy and cooperation.

Old Men & Brandy Snifters

The National Youth Involvement Board, the 2011 Herb Wegner Award winner for Outstanding Organization, has been trying to change this dynamic for 38 years. The idea for NYIB had its origins in 1967, when CUNA Mutual and CUNA began roundtable meetings to determine why young people were passing on credit unions.

A Youth Roundtable was held in 1968 that was telling. Steve Goldberg, executive director of the CUNA Mutual Foundation, attended as a high school senior. "I drove to the Edgewater Hotel and met old men smoking cigars and drinking brandy out of snifters," he says. "The predominate leadership of the movement was old and getting older. They realized that they didn't want to take credit unions to the grave with them."

At the 1972 youth conference, the Youth Advisory Board established an executive committee and chairman, naming the group the National Youth Involvement Board.

In the early years, financial literacy was taught by developing classroom materials, offering and distributing them gratis to local schools. NYIB developed a money management kit and educated kids. During the early years, from 1968 to 1978, the average credit union age actually did decline, from 47 to 44 years old, according to Goldberg.

NYIB's main component is financial literacy and leadership development, said Heather Harris, VP-community development at the $78-million Isabella Community CU in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., and the NYIB chair for three years, 1998 to 2001.

"The goal is to reach, teach and inspire young people," she said. "We teach young people the basics of money management, financial literacy and leadership."

Fighting Yawns

In a culture where material goods are supreme, the notion of teaching the value of regular saving and the wise use of credit can provoke yawns among young people. In the schools, for instance, there are often bureaucratic hoops to overcome to obtain permission to teach the subject. There is also a notion that using resources to teach financial literacy doesn't deliver immediate ROI.

Teaching financial literacy typically involves giving presentations at local schools with materials that are provided by NYIB. Harris works with alternative students, like teenage mothers, to teach them about budgeting. Her presentations strike a welcome note in Michigan, which has suffered greatly during the recession.

"Life is tough in Michigan; the state has been down for five years and being successful here is not having a million dollars, it's paying your bills," Harris says. "One presentation I give is 'Why am I so broke?' I tell them that you don't have to be. You can start a savings account and budget. I see young people two or three years later and they tell me that my presentation made a big difference in their lives."

Another benefit not as well known is that the organization has provided a means for credit unionists starting out in their careers. Harris started as a teller in 1979 and joined NYIB in the same year. Lois Kitsch, national program director for REAL Solutions, which is managed by National Credit Union Foundation and is a prior winner of the Herb Wegner Award, also joined NYIB as a teller in 1981.

"I joined NYIB in 1981 as a drive-up teller for a $350,000-asset credit union in North Dakota," says Kitsch. "I became exposed to all kinds of opportunities, such as meeting foreign visitors from Africa. I would never have gone overseas if not for NYIB."

It was through her NYIB experience that Kitsch realized that credit unions were not just a job, but social involvement and a means to meet personal and professional goals. Earlier this decade, Kitsch did work in Afghanistan on behalf of World Council.

Heather Harris also points to another benefit that NYIB has brought to the CU community: a platform for developing leadership for women. She recalls attending a presentation given by Denise Sweet-McGregor.

"I wasn't used to see women in leadership roles," says Harris. "Denise Sweet was a strong and confident woman. I wanted to be like her. She was a mentor; she would coach and mentor me. NYIB helped women in leadership roles."

Barbara Main, executive director of NYIB from 1981 to 1990, says that "a lot of women found a glass ceiling" in the credit union community that existed in credit unions, leagues and their organizations.

"NYIB became a platform for women; they were able to gain visibility they needed on a state and national level," says Main. "NYIB gave me the skills and contacts needed to start my own business."

The value of networking in starting a business or succeeding in one's professional life is another advantage that NYIB provided for women previously shut out of leadership positions. "Attending a national conference and working with people that were on the CUNA and CUNA Mutual boards put me on a first-name basis with their directors," says Main. "That kind of entrée is phenomenal."

NYIB's Legacy

NYIB is a worthwhile program its admirers say, but does it work? The program, which is run entirely by volunteers with no paid staff, tracks the presentations given and young people reached. The organization started data collection in 1982 using postcard report forms and in 1998, it reported reaching one-million students through financial ed presentations.

In 2005, NYIB began collecting data online and today reports reaching more than 2.5-million students. with 10,235 presentations to 320,143 students on average annually.

NYIB also provides 10 scholarships annually to venues such as development education training, World Council of Credit Unions' youth meetings and the NYIB conference.

Beyond the numbers-collected to provide evidence of the program's worth-there are benefits not easily quantifiable. The NYIB's legacy was its ability to deliver on the historic human commitment of credit unions, according to Steve Goldberg.

"NYIB provided a significant wake-up call regarding the value of engaging young people at all levels of the movement-members, employees as well as officials at the regional and national level. People who started out at an early age were given responsibilities and carried them out thoughtfully. The legacy is that millions of members are using their credit unions as a result of credit unions reaching out to young people."

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