Preaching To Church Mice

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Regarding Frank J. Diekmann's Oct. 10 column, "Be Careful in Throwing Doors Open To The Hordes," he is preaching to church mice living under a broken-down altar that was once erected to the sacred idea of cooperation.

Today, our business model may still require our members to cooperate, but credit unions (and their boards and executives) do very little in the way or cooperating, especially when it comes to "educating" the public about credit union "best practices" in personal financial behavior.

The problem is not unlike the Occupy Wall Street "99/1 Protest." Ninety-nine percent of credit unions do not have the expertise and money to take our message to market and educate the public. (And those of us who try are scolded by the regulators for spending money that is needed to pay off the corporate credit union debacle). The 1% is the too-big-to-fail credit unions that typically operate in a closed marketplace (employer or local community) and have no interest in participating in larger cooperative marketing schemes.

Here in Illinois, our league tried a statewide "I Belong" advertising campaign in 2007 and 2008. The small credit unions were eager participants. But large credit unions killed the campaign after two years of refusing to participate because it did not fit into their "marketing plans."

But even if Illinois' "I Belong" campaign had taken hold among all the league's members, it would not have been financially capable of moving past the "branding" stage and on to real public financial education. That is a universal task, and the entity that should be leading this charge on a national basis is CUNA. And yet, in 2005 they determined this (or marketing of any kind) was not a task they were suited to do; that they were much better representing credit unions politically and saving us for the clutches of evil bankers and tax-revenue agencies.

Obviously, if this was CUNA's best thinking, they were probably right. And yet, I can't help but wonder what it would be like today if CUNA had applied themselves in 2005 to spend just 25% of their political budget and talent on a national marketing and advertising campaign aimed at educating young people on the financial virtues of credit union membership. How much better off would the 99% (people and credit unions) be today, even if this CUNA campaign had failed as miserably as all the political issues they have campaigned for between 2005 and 2011?

Hubris is a bitter cocktail to swallow, and yet the 1% of credit unions and their national advocates have openly joined the end-game the Too-Big-Too-Fail banks are currently engaged in-boiling our industry down to 1%. By ignoring the 99%, the large credit unions, CUNA and NAFCU have all been tilting at windmills right alongside the bankers and their trade associations; even running cover for the biggest 1% of banks as they dream of their own greatness through this Too-Big-Too-Fail association.

Meantime, the church mice look about at their aging congregations, who in turn look at their children and wonder at this mystical hold Chase and the other TBTF banks have on them. It's not the new social media that's has won their hearts and minds. It's the bankers' aggressive, if vacuous message that they are the only choice in a wilderness void of any better alternatives. And our timid behavior not only reinforces this message, but becomes especially poignant whenever the bankers push us back into our own branded niche of American finance-serving the underserved.

Let's get all a-twitter about that!

Michael Dillon
South Division Credit Union
Evergreen Park, Ill.

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