Volunteers need more education, not more politics
One of the biggest challenges facing credit unions today is the desperate need for educated volunteers. It is a topic that is rarely openly discussed. I often ask credit union groups, "What is one of the greatest strengths of credit unions?" Almost always, the reaction is total silence. Surprisingly, even when the audience is made up primarily of credit union directors, it is rare to have someone suggest "volunteers." On the other hand, when a follow-up question is asked, "What is one of the greatest weaknesses of credit unions?" the response is an instantaneous, "volunteers." It seems incredible that credit union people don't immediately think of volunteers as one of the greatest strengths (which they are), but apparently have no trouble concluding that credit union volunteers are also one of the greatest weaknesses (which they also are) of credit unions. Volunteers are a strength because they serve without payment for their time and expertise. They bring a different perspective to the boardroom table. They provide political capital. They were put in the policymaker driver's seat by members. They generously give freely of their personal and career talents. They bring fresh membership perspectives to the decision making process. The list goes on and on. The most glaring weakness of volunteers is that some credit union volunteers can not, or will not, make the effort, to keep up to speed. Many can't see, or refuse to see, that in order to survive, remain competitive, and meet increased member expectations and needs, credit unions have had to undergone massive change since a high percentage of volunteers first sat down at the boardroom table. Yet, many volunteers still see the credit union as it was in the good old days and attempt to set policy accordingly. They are only comfortable with that which they understand. Another obvious weakness involves those directors who no longer make a contribution to the success of the credit union, but hang on for dear life for the camaraderie, prestige, and numerous perks such as free trips. I am not talking about age. Sometimes that is a factor, but there are others. Because of asset growth, new products and services, sophisticated delivery systems, membership expansions, mergers, charter changes, etc., some board members have been left behind and thus no longer contribute to the success of the credit union. Worse, some volunteers are actually hurting the credit union. Should volunteers be expected to be as knowledgeable about their credit union and credit unions in general as the full-time staff? Of course not. But they should be expected to at least stay current enough to make the increasingly complex number of decisions placed before them To be brutally frank, some volunteers don't have a clue and everyone knows it. But it's only talked about behind closed doors. Such a situation is especially unfortunate because there is no lack of opportunity for volunteers to pick up needed and useful information. The state and national groups all have good continuing education programs for volunteers. There are also many educational conferences geared to volunteer education. There are dozen of Web sites, publications, books, videos, etc. of value to credit union volunteers. So why the growing and serious problem of so many credit union volunteers not being as knowledgeable about credit union issues as they need to be? For one thing, some volunteers simply don't want to make the effort and time commitment to be well informed. For example, they don't take advantage of educational opportunities available to them, or they end up going to the wrong conferences for the wrong reasons (location comes to mind). Or they don't read any credit union specific publications, or the wrong ones. In short, they don't do their homework. Instead, they look at issues only through their personal, narrow perspective. In fairness, some credit union CEOs actually want their volunteers to remain in the dark. They feel that too much information available to volunteers could make their job as CEO harder. One of dozens of possible examples: one CU CEO gets Credit Union Times at his home address. He doesn't want his directors to even know it exists let alone read about industry issues and what other credit unions are doing to address them. Recently a group of volunteers in California decided to look into forming a new volunteers organization. It is called the Credit Union Directors of America (CUDA). Could CUDA become a focal point for dealing with the growing problem of keeping credit union volunteers informed? Apparently CUDA is to be more focused on getting volunteers in positions of leadership, especially in policymaking roles at the national level. CUDA proponents feel strongly that paid staff has taken over and volunteers have been effectively shut out from serving, for example, on national credit union trade group boards. Bringing all this together, perhaps volunteers themselves need to make certain that they are credit union qualified to step into national positions. If in fact that is the underlying goal of CUDA, to help get volunteers up to speed whereby the have the CU knowledge to serve on any credit union organization board, at any level, I applaud them. If on the other hand, CUDA wants to be still another credit union organization with still another political agenda and is looking to wield enough clout to demand positions on CU group boards, it is doomed to failure. The credit union industry already has far more political entities than it needs and can support. According to its already up and running Web site, CUDA hopes to schedule a national conference, to create an organizational structure, and define its purpose. Good luck! What the credit union world needs is volunteers who have the wherewithal to get up to speed on important issues that cover the gamut from their own credit union to the credit union industry as a whole. And stay there. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.