People (Learning How To Go About) Helping People

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It's not like the past few years haven't seen growth in at least a few job categories. Political Ad Distortion Enhancer. Bruce Jenner Facial Expression Stand-in. Steve Jobs Mythmaker. And within CUs, financial counselor.

There's no better example than the Financial Counseling Certification Program, better known as FiCEP. It's one thing to offer counseling, quite another to be a counselor, and the program has made changes to address that. Launched six years ago by CUNA, it got new traction in 2009 when the Vermont league won a federal grant to train 30 CU staff members in that state.

Until that time, certification could only be earned by attending a residential school or through self-study. The challenge there, noted Mark Lynch, field coach with the National Credit Union Foundation's REAL Solutions program, was the former option is expensive and takes a staffer out of the office for two weeks (ironically leading to a financial issue for the CU), and the latter, while inexpensive, offers no support and requires self discipline to complete.

In 2010, the Vermont league made a presentation on its program to a REAL Solutions meeting, and in short order the Michigan and Utah leagues had signed on to conduct a similar program. Lynch said he worked closely with the Michigan league and what was learned became the basis for a partnership on FiCEP between REAL Solutions, CUNA's Center for Professional Development, and four leagues that was announced earlier this year.

The First Steps

"The program starts with me working with the league to develop a strategy to recruit participants," explained Lynch. "We find that while staff from anywhere might participate, lending and collections staff along with branch managers make up the majority of students. We've had several CEOs and several VPs go through the program. Once the students are recruited, we hold four webinars (never longer than an hour each) every two weeks. This covers the first four modules in the FiCEP program. Then we get students together for a day of face-to-face training and to take proctored exams for the first four modules. We repeat this process for part two."

Each day runs from about 8:30 to 5 and is set up by the respective league.

Once a student passes all eight exams, they are a "Certified Credit Union Financial Counselor," or CCUFC for those of you tracking CU abbreviations at home.

Lynch said one component that has been added has been a "focus on teaching them how to put their new skills to best use at the their credit union. We found that many staff who completed the course in the past didn't fully utilize their skills and were not thinking through how to best establish a counseling and education program."

In particular, what credit union staff learn are the skills and knowledge needed to work one on one with members who are in financial trouble or living from paycheck to paycheck and how to train members to better manage their money, Lynch said.

"Students cope well with the financial skills and concepts, which is logical," he said. "However, some staff find it difficult to learn the counseling concepts; things like understanding how the mind works and why members think and behave the way they do. I'm also finding that participants really get the part about setting up a great counseling and education program at their credit union. However, some struggle to convince their management team to adopt their plans."

Helping in that struggle is a component that should get the ear of CEOs and CFOs everywhere-the program calls for developing a strategy to fulfill three key aims: helping the member, growing the CU, and improving the bottom line of both.

Is the program working? Lynch acknowledged credit unions can be very good at doing good things, but when it comes to tracking and measuring "good deeds," not so much. "In this program, we teach participants to start tracking and measuring from day one," he said, including tracking the number of hours spent counseling, members helped, educational courses conducted and students taught. "Then we teach them to measure outcomes both for the member and the credit union-improvement in member credit scores, debt reduction and savings increase successes for the member and reduction in bankruptcies, foreclosures and bad debts for the credit union."

Getting It To 'Stick'

From orientation through conclusion takes around five months. "If I can arrange it, I have some states share webinars. The only challenge I'm facing is that some CUs send staff who are either uncomfortable with counseling members or are uncomfortable about going back to study and testing for the first time in many years. I think the sooner they actually get in and do some counseling the better. The concepts and information should stick with them if they do this."

The NCUF provided all the funding to set up the program, and some state foundations have contributed aid, as well. Fittingly, Lynch said every effort has been made to keep costs down. "When we set up our plan a couple of months ago for 2012, we aimed to expand the program to 16 states. The indications are that we will probably exceed that goal," said Lynch. "I already have strong interest from 21 states."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at

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