Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Question of Balance

I recently participated in a meeting of credit union development educators in Las Vegas. “DEs,” as we are affectionately known, are at times referred to as those who drank the “Kool Aid.”

Well, I’m not sure if it was Kool Aid I drank, but one thing is certain. When it comes to DEs, never underestimate their passion for credit union philosophy and the cooperative values and principles that define our credit union business model. Such enthusiasm contributes to the ongoing vitality of the credit union system, helping us to maintain our roots in all that makes us distinct within the financial services marketplace.

Yet, passion alone for cooperative philosophy and values should not be seen as the summation of what makes credit unions tick. Let’s also remember that as co-ops, credit unions are first and foremost a business.

Without efficient business strategies, objectives and plans tailored to deliver services to the owners of the credit union as intended, our ability to care for the community, to help the underserved, and to exercise social and environmental responsibility would be curtailed, if not, disabled.

Both business operations and cooperative philosophy must go hand-in-hand. They must constantly influence and challenge each other if we are to produce the “credit union experience.” However, bridging the business aspects of a credit union with its distinct philosophy can be quite a task.

I see it as a balance.

Credit unions require a healthy balance of financial business principles and acumen with a philosophy defined by a set of seven cooperative principles and values. Tilt too far toward the business side and we become no different than a bank; too far to the other and, well, you get my point.

And just as it is in riding a bike, balance becomes a lot easier to achieve when moving forward than standing still.

This might explain why at times we experience a certain level of tension and uneasiness within the credit union community. (Could it be from trying to maintain a balance while standing still?)

For example, our movement has staunch co-operators, individuals who live and breathe credit union values and philosophy. We also have folks who at times appear like they belong more in a banking office than within the credit union environment. Stand still and the differences in philosophies between both groups may be startling, but move forward, together in cooperation, and something wonderful occurs—a natural balance of the philosophy and operations begins to take shape.

However, what happens should we find ourselves standing still, refusing to cooperate, focusing on the differences, and forgetting that credit unions are cooperatives?  I am of the opinion that is where we as a credit union community are. We have fallen “out of balance.”

In recently talking with a variety of leaders from throughout the credit union community, along with reading news articles and letters to the editors as published in the trades, I feel that this “out of balance” impression I have is growing more prominent each day.

Many of the executives with whom I spoke said that trust among one another today is at an all-time low. Chapter gatherings, once an opportunity to network, share and learn from each other are far from what they used to be. A growing number of volunteers and executives alike are forgetting their cooperative roots and the principles defining the business model entrusted to their care. Cooperation with one another is being supplanted by walls of separation where one ego is pitted against another, one credit union business against that of another. This is not what credit unions were meant to be!

All anyone has to do is talk to some of the veterans in our movement and he or she will quickly hear them say how we have changed and lost our sense of direction as a movement, or as I maintain, our balance. I’m afraid that if left unchecked, this will all eventually fester, contributing to the demise of credit unions sooner than later.

Today, we find ourselves at a critical point in our history, unlike ever before. If we are to survive, I believe we desperately need leaders with the charisma of Filene and Bergengren. And, we need a rallying cry! We have to find a way to come together in cooperation so we can harness the strength one unified movement produces, for only this level of strength will help us overcome the challenges we are facing.

And, we ought to start moving forward right now because in less than two years, we, within the credit union sector, will join with our cousin cooperatives throughout the world to celebrate the United Nation’s Year of the Cooperative.

With 2012 right around the corner, will the testimony we bear for ourselves and our movement reflect a unity of strength and cooperation? I can only say for now that how we mark this occasion remains a question of balance.

“See the writing on the wall, hear the mirror's warning call . . . Time is now to spread your voice; Time's to come there'll be no choice.” (From the album, “A Question Of Balance” by The Moody Blues, 1970)

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