RALEIGH, N.C. -- For the State Employees' Credit Union Foundation, the question was never whether to channel money back into the communities the CU served.
The question for this year's winner of the Herb Wegner Award for Outstanding Organization award was how to do that in a way that provided the most impact for each dollar spent, according to Mark Twisdale, executive director of SECU Foundation.
"The foundation leadership has noticed for a long time that credit unions had trouble getting credit for the good works and help they provided their communities," Twisdale explained. "The idea for the foundation was to leverage a relatively small donation from individual members into development programs which could have a lot of impact in their local communities," Twisdale explained.
Beginning in August 2004, to fund the foundation, the credit union has temporarily reassigned money it collected from a $1 maintenance fee on its checking accounts to the foundation. Members who still want their dollar fee to go to the credit union's general fund are able to do so, but Twisdale reported that 97% of the CUs members who have checking accounts make the donation to the foundation each month. This gives the foundation a monthly income upwards of $600,000 or about $7.2 million yearly, which provides it with the means to really look at how and where its money makes the most impact.
The SECU Foundation has taken its responsibility and mission to heart, making significant contributions in the last four years in education, healthcare, housing, and energy, advancing the projects that have had the quality impact and drawn the attention generally reserved for the large bank foundations.
In education, the Foundation provides a four-year, $10,000 scholarship to every one of North Carolina's 350 public high schools for them to provide to one of their graduating seniors who will attend one of the state's 16 public colleges or universities.
The SECU Foundation also provides $5,000 to every public high school so that one of its graduating seniors can attend one of the state's community colleges.
Twisdale explained that the foundation gives the award to the educational foundation in each school district to actually administer the award and choose winners.
"Every school district has what they call a scholarship board and they specialize in making these sorts of grants," Twisdale explained. Taking that approach let the foundation keep out of business of administering the grants or choosing winners, he added, though the foundation does insist that students be chosen on the basis of academic merit and have at least a 2.5 grade point average.
The funds are provided in $2500 increments for each of the two or four years directly to the schools where they must first go to tuition but then can help defray the costs of books and other fees. Community college students can also use some of the award for transportation as well, Twisdale explained, since the tuition to community colleges has generally been less and community college students most often live off-campus.
The foundation does not expect scholarship students to maintain any particular grade point average but they have to remain in school, he added.
This year will be the fourth year the foundation awards the scholarships and Twisdale reported that the impact and feedback have both been widespread. Every time the scholarships are announced, local school districts across the state carry the awards in the local papers and the CU has begun to collect the stories from students who are showing very promising futures in their academic careers.
Twisdale added that from the CU's perspective, the roughly $14 million that the CU will have made in scholarships this year has been money very well spent, an investment in their communities and students which will keep paying dividends far in the future.
The investment in teacher housing will bring the same sort of dividends, Twisdale explained.
Many of North Carolina's poorer counties have had a very hard time drawing and retaining teachers for their public schools, both because they cannot afford to pay a lot of money but also because their areas lacked the type of housing that teachers could afford on a small salary.
This was the case in Hertford County, located in North Eastern North Carolina. This low-wealth rural county has struggled with teacher recruitment and retention due largely to the lack of good quality, safe, and affordable housing in the area. Most new Hertford County teachers are forced to go outside of the county for housing and often transfer to teaching positions in more prosperous counties, resulting in extremely high teacher turnover rates as well.
Seizing the opportunity, the SECU Foundation stepped in by giving $2 million to build a 24-unit housing project for teachers through a 0% interest loan for design and construction. As the funds are repaid through rental income, the SECU Foundation will recycle the funds to build additional units in other counties throughout North Carolina.
Twisdale explained that with each of the units renting at about $500 per month, they provide an affordable, centrally located housing resource for teaches who will be able to walk or bicycle to most of their classrooms from where they live.
The Hertford project opened for residency in July 2007 and Twisdale said the foundation has already entered into negotiations for funding a similar project in Dare County, which is largely made up North Carolina's barrier islands and also has a severe shortage of available housing for teachers.
Twisdale said the SECU is particularly proud that the foundation's activities are funded entirely by the credit union's members, who have reacted enthusiastically to the foundation and its work. "This puts the credit union principles of people helping people into action a clear and strong way that makes a real difference, Twisdale said.
While the Wegner award focused on their educational efforts, the SECU Foundation has its hands in a variety of community works. For housing, the foundation has helped fund a project whereby one of North Carolina's poor counties will be able to provide affordable housing for teachers in its schools, teachers who previously had often left because they couldn't find affordable housing close to their schools. The foundation has also helped fund the "SECU Family House," which provides affordable housing to families of patients at the University of North Carolina hospitals. With regard to energy, the foundation has partnered with North Carolina Green Power to help move the credit union toward using fewer fossil fuels and more alternative sources of energy.