don't have the luxury of devoting people to finding new, innovative ways of serving communities. Enter Sonja White and Lynn Bedard, community affairs liaisons with the Office of Thrift Supervision. They are key members of a two-year-old group that advises thrifts on how to improve their community relations - and their scores on Community Reinvestment Act exams. The six-member group, headed by Ms. White, has worked with more than 100 thrifts since its inception. Ms. White said the regional liaisons have had at least some contact with more than half of the institutions in their areas during the past two years. Sometimes the team members, individually or collectively, seek out certain thrifts through industry seminars. Other times, poor-performing thrifts contact the team for help, having been referred by either an examiner or another thrift. "Generally speaking, institutions are more than happy to see us," said Ms. Bedard, who leads the effort in the Southeast. "They're looking for the time and attention. We're not threatening to them; we're helpful." Members of the liaison group limit their roles to educator and information provider. They tell thrifts about various community development options and answer regulatory questions, but they leave specific plan development and decision making to the individual thrift. The counselors request only that thrifts be smart about their community development choices, and not make knee-jerk moves to please regulators. "We don't advocate making loans just for Community Reinvestment Act purposes," said Ms. White, the agency's national community affairs adviser. "That's not safe and sound. Thrifts aren't philanthropic entities. They're business organizations." Though thrifts viewed the liaisons warily at first, their services increasingly are welcomed, Ms. Bedard said. Struggling thrifts don't have to contact the agency or respond to every bit of information the team may provide, but institutions have become more accepting of their input. The community affairs department helps the thrifts by providing information on nonprofit groups and available properties. Also, they produce newsletters and seminars. They have even provided transportation for a nonprofit group and thrift to tour an underprivileged part of a community, allowing each to better understand the needs of their area. "What we find out is who the players are in the community," Ms White said. "We try and find out who's doing what among nonprofits and community groups. Then, we look at what our institutions are doing." That keeps the small division exceptionally busy. Ms. White heads the unit from Washington, D.C. Ms. Bedard, based in Atlanta, is one of five regional heads that essentially make up a department unto themselves. Ms. White helped coordinate the OTS study that eventually convinced the agency this team was needed, leading to her join the team. Ms. Bedard had been working in Atlanta to help restabilize thrifts that had struggled in the 1980s, and that experience, she said, made the transition to this group an easy one. The OTS is not the first regulator to launch an outreach program. In fact, it is the last of the four banking agencies to develop such a service. Ms. White said the OTS' predecessor, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, had an outreach program. However, it was assumed by the 12 federal home loan banks when the thrift agency was created in 1989, leaving OTS without a community development aid until 1993. The Federal Reserve Board has had a consumer and community affairs division since the 1980, with about 80 people involved throughout the nation. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. began its community affairs program in 1990. In five years the division has grown from eight people to 26 and includes an administrative office in Washington, D.C., and officers in all eight regional offices. As of Sept. 27, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency splits responsibilities between two areas: community development and the new community relations division. The two units have 15 employees between them, and are operated out of Washington, D.C. But the OTS department is a national operation. That scope, Ms. Bedard said, allows the agency to better serve its institutions because it provides a vast problem-solving network. "We try and match up thrifts that have similar problems," Ms. Bedard said. "It helps that they don't have to reinvent the wheel every time that they try to do something."
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