Everyone Talks About It, But...What Does Advocacy Mean?

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"Advocacy." It's a word we hear often these days. It's a word that is heralded in a climate of continuing field of membership litigation, congressional hearings on credit unions' validation of service to people of modest means and credit union conversions.

In reviewing the themes for GACs past, I am struck by the pervasive advocacy theme. From 1979 to today, here are some of the former themes: 1979: "Political Action: Protecting the Future," 1984: "Credit Unions, Consider Us: Where Working America Borrows & Saves," 1991: "The Voices of America," 1998: "Choosing Our Future." This year is no different. This year's GAC theme is "Deliver Our Message." This theme implies that advocacy is a crucial component of the "other duties as assigned" of credit union CEOs, board and staff.

But what is advocacy, really, to that same credit union CEO, board member or employee? What exactly is the "message" and to whom should it be "delivered?" Glad you asked. Here is my theory.

Webster's Third International Dictionary defines advocacy as "the action of advocating, pleading for, or supporting a cause or proposal." Advocacy is in essence telling your story, talking about what you do, why it makes a difference and the importance of your efforts. The "message" amounts to your experience in serving your credit union's members. The "message" is what and how your credit union is doing to help your members' financial well-being. The "message" is how your credit union participates in the community. The "message" should be "delivered" to anyone who will listen-your members (first and foremost!), your local press, your community leaders, your local elected officials, and your congressional representatives. Pretty heady stuff.

'Opportunity In Every Difficulty'

As noted above, the times we live in are fraught with challenges. NCUA and credit unions are being challenged in litigation regarding field of membership expansions. State-chartered credit unions await a determination by the Internal Revenue Service on the applicability of unrelated business income tax (UBIT). The Nov. 3, 2005 House Ways and Means Committee hearing sent a clear message that credit unions need to consider how they confirm service to all segments of their field of membership. CU conversions to mutual thrifts continue to raise challenges on the adequacy of disclosures to members voting on the conversion.

Winston Churchill once said "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Today, the opportunity for credit unions is advocacy. The opportunity is credit unions taking the time to speak up, to comment, and to "deliver" the "message." The opportunity is that you-yes you-can make a difference. From teller to CEO, lending officer to board member, your ability and willingness to talk about your credit union expands the understanding of the people with whom you interact. It makes a difference to members trying to decide on the best loan. It makes a difference to the consumer reporter doing a story on fees for banking services. And, last but not least, it makes a difference to your elected officials on how you serve all segments of your field of membership- their constituents.

The possibilities of this opportunity do not end there. On the contrary, as an advocate, you can make a profound difference on the regulatory front as well. Take the time to read proposed rules issued by NCUA and other regulatory bodies. Consider the implications of the proposal to your operations. Write a comment letter to NCUA letting the agency know of your support and or concerns about a proposed rule. Responding to NCUA or other regulators on proposed rulemaking means you have input. Sharing your experience and thoughts of how a regulation will affect you can make a real difference on the final outcome of a regulation.

Telling Everyone Else

This opportunity of advocacy also encompasses the chance to underscore credit unions' uniqueness. Credit unionists are great at telling each other about the great things their credit unions are doing to serve members. Advocacy is the chance to tell everybody else. Advocating for your credit union certainly means highlighting the uniqueness of the credit union structure-volunteer boards, one member, one vote.

But in addition, think about how your particular member-owners are unique. What can you tell external audiences about the uniqueness of how you serve your members and the array of products and services your credit union has to meet those needs. In the end it's all about you...how your efforts in your credit union make a difference in the lives of your members.

So deliver your message. Deliver it loud and clear.

Gigi Hyland is a member of the NCUA board.

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