Most credit unions can be infuriating for their unwillingness to wear their cooperative identities proudly and brag about what makes them different from investor-owned banks. But the association representing credit unions in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island is a notable exception.
First there's the name of the group itself: the Cooperative Credit Union Association. I love my credit union here in Vermont, but the number of references to cooperatives on the main page of its web site is zero. In contrast, the credit unions of MA, NH and RI are wearing their cooperative identity on their collective sleeve.
And it's not just the name of the association! The group has a new web site, bettervaluesbetterbanking.com, that goes beyond the usual cooperative platitudes and explains exactly why using a credit union is better for consumers than using a bank: "Credit unions are about people, not profits. When you bank at a credit union, you’re a member, not a customer. As a credit union member, you typically earn more on your savings and pay less on your loans, and your money stays in the community, where it benefits you and your neighbors. Surveys consistently rank credit unions first among financial institutions in consumer satisfaction."
Let's face it. Most credit union executives are alumni of investor-owned banks, so they tend to think like conventional bankers. Among other things, this means they don't like to get edgy. First and foremost they don't want to annoy regulators -- indeed, they perceive keeping the regulators at bay as Job One. They also don't like to draw too much attention to their institutions, perhaps because they fear making promises they might have trouble keeping. Are the interest rates and other terms of service really better than that of conventional banks? Does the money really stay in the community? (At my credit union, fully half the money members have on deposit is then deposited back out again at regular banks, even though the credit union earns more interest by lending the money to its members.)
Don't get me wrong. I love everybody. I still maintain accounts at Ledyard National Bank, a locally owned for-profit institution that is friendly and responsive. And I am very devoted to my credit union, which is staffed by great people and maintains a solid connection to its historic field of membership (teachers, retired teachers and their families). My point: If cooperatives are to thrive and grow in today's economy, be they in the financial sector or elsewhere, they are going to have to differentiate themselves from their investor-owned competition and nurture the one asset nobody else can have: deep member trust. To do that, credit unions and other cooperatives must make the case for "the cooperative difference." Kudos to the CUs in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island for doing just that!