ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Credit unions considering ways to hike the use of their debit cards, increase interchange income and strengthen links to their communities might take a page from the experience of the $866 million New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union.
Wanting to both increase the use of its debit card in transactions members validate with their signatures, the credit union launched its community rewards program in 2006.
Cardholders enrolled in the program both receive a 0.25% rebate for their signature transactions and the credit union will match their rebate with contri-butions to a community and category that the member designates.
The contributions are made frequently to nonprofit organizations or SEGs within the credit union's field of membership engaged in nonprofit work or work within one of the credit union's donation categories.
Those categories include education, health care, the arts, environment and wildlife, or community support. The communities where the CU makes donations are all within its field of membership and include Albuquerque, Belen, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Moriarty, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Socorro and Taos.
Sharla Reinhart, director of membership development for the credit unions stresses that the credit union did not have increasing interchange income from its debit card program as its primary goal when it started the program. It was looking for a way the credit union could enhance and strengthen its long-standing community support programs.
"This was never about making us more money," Reinhart said, adding that the credit union does not generally promote the awards it makes. "This was and is always about our members and our community and the credit union philosophy of people helping people," she said.
Reinhart might have felt she needed to be clear about the goal of the program because, overall, it has been a strong success. According to Reinhart, more than 32,000 of the credit union's 64,000 members eligible for the program have enrolled so far, and the program has led to a 15% annual increase in its debit interchange income.
The program, which runs a program year of July through the following June, is in its third program year. In the first year, she reported that the program, which had just launched, distributed $130,000 to its members and participating organizations. At the end of the program's second year, New Mexico FCU distributed $800,000, split roughly evenly between its members and nonprofit organizations.
Reinhart explained that New Mexico Educators had chosen how to structure the program based on a desire to both concentrate the ability of members to make an impact and streamline the donation process. With members choosing which areas and categories to support, the money from the rebates can be concentrated and the number of options limits the costs of administering the program, she said.
New Mexico Educators has also been studious about not trumpeting the program widely, Reinhart explained. The credit union does not issue press releases when it makes awards and sometimes does not even let the organizations know they are getting the money before a representative from New Mexico shows up with a check.
"We believe in letting our actions speak for us," Reinhart said. "We don't say anything beyond to our members about what we do, but the organizations and people we help definitely talk about it."
Reinhart described the distribution of donation checks as one of the best parts of her job. She tells a story of the recipients who had to be convinced to make time to meet with her and who had been almost overwhelmed by the gift.
"Since the check can often be sizable, its impact is often pretty large," Reinhart said.
New Mexico Educators has found the program so successful that it is also expanding it to support its checking programs as well. Through Feb. 28, 2009, members with personal checking accounts and are enrolled in the community rewards program will earn double cash rewards, 0.50%, instead of the normal 0.25%, for all signature-based purchases with their Visa check card.
The CU capped the amount that a member can earn in the double rewards program at $500, but it stressed that there is no limit to the amount that can be earned through the standard community rewards program.