Volunteer Gets Money In Budget For DC Advocacy

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When Annette Barwick joined the board of Suncoast Schools FCU, very few of the volunteers made the trek to Washington, D.C. to attend CUNA's GAC and be part of the national Hike The Hill day that marks the annual conference. All it took was a simple vote to change all that.

"We had been active in our state's Hike The Hill day that we do in September, but not at GAC," Barwick told The Credit Union Journal. "Our board members get one out-of-state trip a year, and let's face it, if you only get one trip a year, Washington, D.C. in February isn't exactly all that alluring."

Especially when you live in Florida.

But Barwick, who has served on SSFCU's board for about 13 years, thought volunteers going to GAC and being politically active needed to be a priority for the credit union.

"I got the board to approve that as a routine matter the entire executive committee should participate in GAC every year," she related. "I just really think it's that important."

Barwick inherited her love of Suncoast Schools from her boss. "My boss for many years had been a credit union volunteer, when she retired and left the board, I decided to apply for a position on the board," she explained. "I had heard her talk about the importance of credit unions for years, and I admired and respected her."

Desire To Be Involved

The desire to be involved with the credit union in turn sprouted a desire to be involved in the political process when Barwick realized what was at stake with the seemingly endless banks attacks against credit unions.

"The banker threat is the reason [political action] is so important," she observed. "This is not a financial thing, it's a philosophical thing. We have our mission, and it's not theirs. It often feels like a David-and-Goliath battle."

To any board members out there who believe it's up to the paid staff to do the lobbying, Barwick suggests rethinking that attitude, and pronto.

"[Lawmakers] really like personal contact, and it seems to me that they really appreciate that we are volunteers and not paid staff-that we are there on our own time, and we're not being compensated for it, and despite that, we think it's that important to be there. It gives us a certain credibility, and our being there on our own time demonstrates one part of the credit union difference: volunteer boards."

Barwick's primary effort is to educate lawmakers on what makes credit unions special.

"There is a credit union difference, and we try to educate them on that. The question we have to answer-especially for us, since our credit union is large-is why are we not a bank," she observed. "Because we're big, some people think we're just like a bank-that whole, 'if it quacks like a duck,' argument. They think if you're a big, and you do everything a bank does and offer all the same services as a bank, then you're a bank."

But just because a credit union does many of the same things a bank does doesn't take into account that there are a number of things credit unions do that banks don't-things like having a volunteer board of directors, a democratically-run organization and member ownership of the organization.

"When we go to our lawmakers, we're not always talking about real specific bills they're working on," she said. "It's really more about giving them a basic understanding of who we are."

Of course, sometimes it's difficult even to get the basics across.

"Sometimes it's not what is being said, but to whom we're saying it," Barwick commented. "Sometimes the bias is just so strong that they're just not going to hear what we have to say. At that point, you thank them for their time and tell them you're available if they have any questions in the future. It's more about offering to be of assistance."

One of the most frustrating things about lobbying is that it's rare to be able to point to a specific instance and know that what was said or done was effective, but that doesn't make it any less important to do, she insisted.

"This usually isn't something that gets immediate results, you don't know right away how effective you've been or how it's going to help in the long term," Barwick noted. "But you have to keep at it. It can't be a one time, in-and-out thing."

Suncoast sponsors and participates in a variety of coffees and breakfasts with lawmakers, and the credit union also makes contributions to campaigns-something Barwick does on her own, as well.

"The credit union makes contributions, and some of the staff and board also make contributions individually," she said. "But it's not a requirement to be on the board. That's a personal, individual thing."

A 'Soft, Soft' Message

Although legislators are more likely to contact the CEO or other paid staff when help is needed, that doesn't mean the importance of volunteers being involved politically should be underestimated.

"[Lawmakers] are more likey to go to our CEO or the league, and then the CEO and the league involves us," Barwick explained. "They know we have a valuable contribution to make to the process."

In addition to its more direct efforts at lobbying, Suncoast also put together a television commercial to get out the message about what a credit union is. "It wasn't a commercial that was trying to sell them something," she observed. "It was about how we are different and what we can offer you. It was a very soft, soft message."

And just like lobbying, measuring the results of the advertising is imperfect, at best. "It's one of those things that is almost impossible to measure," she offered. "But that doesn't mean it's not important to do them."

Volunteer Lobbyist: Annette Barwick

CU: Suncoast Schools FCU, Tampa

Worth Noting: Ms. Barwick became involved in credit unions because a former boss, who spoke admiringly of credit unions, was also a board member.

Strategy For Ensuring Her Message Is Heard: Ms. Barwick said that because she represents a large credit union, much of the focus is on explaining why Suncoast Schools FCU is not a bank. Helping make that point is the fact she volunteers her time at the credit union.

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