Three Little Letters, GAC, Are Demanding Three More: ROI

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They came, they saw, they spent. But what did credit unions get for it?

Washington has long been the kind of town where budget numbers are thrown around almost as if it’s someone else’s money. Budget projections are made, budget projections are exceeded. A congressman proposes $100 million for a project we don’t need, eventually spends $50 million on the same, and then boasts of the $50 million in “savings.” And it’s all put on the American Excess card with financing (with interest) provided by other countries and the payments dumped on generations that never got or will get the benefits (with the money borrowed and spent by politicians who see no hypocrisy at all in lecturing we sinners on morals).

As you might expect, money was all the talk when credit unions convened for CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference last week in the capital. There was, of course, some discussion of the money credit unions save their members, the money that is and is not coming from new members, and the money that has to be spent to keep up on the products and services front (as a walk down any of the aisles in the trade show would attest).

But here are some other numbers, and it’s time to think about the ROI. CUNA said GAC attracted a record 4,700 attendees this year. I rounded that down to 4,500, but at $895 each that’s $4,027,500 CUs spent to register. Assuming 4,000 of those folks spent three nights in area hotels at $225 a night, that’s another $2.7 million on the members’ tab. Noticing none of the area restaurants were empty, and using a conservative $100 a day for meals for all 4,700 people (even if you’re stuffing yourself at a hospitality suite someone is still paying), that’s another 1.410 million bucks. Estimating that perhaps 3,000 of those on hand had to fly in, and again being very conservative in a town where it doesn’t pay to be, at an average airfare of $300 each, that’s another $900,000.

Add it all up and you get credit unions spending a little over $9 million for their three or four days of speechifying and hike-the-hillafying and the logic defying. And I didn’t even count the wallets opened for bar tabs, DC cabs or trinkets fab.

Then there’s that other little expenditure. Gas prices are up, and the oil that greases Washington is PAC contributions. CUNA CEO Dan Mica proudly shared with the capacity crowd filling the Washington convention center meeting hall that the CUNA PAC, CULAC, has $4 million to spread around the halls of Congress this year.

It’s all a very long way from Roy Bergengren sleeping an office cot to save expenses so he could meet with CU organizers in post offices and factories and little towns around the country if only they could find enough folks willing to throw $5 each into a cigar box. (On my last night in DC I caught up with a few CU folks in a cigar bar, which, when you don’t smoke, serves only as a reminder as to just how bad your clothes used to smell after any night out pre-1985 or so.)

When you’re spending more than $12-million of the members’ money on anything it’s always good to pause and ask what that investment is netting? Credit unions have gone through the assets of a decent-sized CU in recent years trying to get CURIA passed, only to be told this year, as the Credit Union Journal was the first to report, they may have to settle for CURIA Lite, and they’ll be lucky to get even that.

The new digs for GAC at the Convention Center were physical testament to the ongoing growth of credit unions. It was big and bright and airy, with room for multitudes more in the years to come. But as the wise, old travelers know, you better not forget where you came from, because eventually you’ll want to get back. Credit unions met with congress and their staff to talk legislation and express a little mutual admiration, when CUs really needed to be sharing stories from back home of the pinch from tough times many working folks are feeling right now.

After all, those same members may understand why credit unions need to be in Washington, but if they knew what the bill came to to send the CEO and some board members, they have every right to ask what was in it for them and to demand the same documented and detailed ROI that credit unions expect of their own vendors. Meanwhile, in case you missed it at GAC:

* Observed by David King, chairman of the SECU Foundation, about his credit union’s well-known and outspoken CEO, Jim Blaine, who was sitting in the audience at the Wegner Awards. “There’s our reticent, retiring CEO. He’s such a shrinking violet many of you probably don’t know who he is.”

* In accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award, Bob Hoel told emcee Bob Schumacher, “There are a lot of people who deserve this award more than I do…But since you had it engraved ...” Later, Hoel talked of his inauspicious beginnings. “At my first credit union presentation on field of membership, some people got up and left the room and slammed the door.”

* While in D.C. last week, I was walking down a dark, residential street with a couple of other credit union folks when we actually heard someone say to another person a bit down the street, “Hey, didn’t you used to be a man?”

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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