New NCUF Leader Hopes Foundation Stays on Innovation Track
o Bucky Sebastian, former CEO of GTE FCU, becomes NCUF executive director.
o Sebastian Sees innovation and cooperation key to foundation success.
o The time to experiment with different foundation funding models may be coming.
Bucky Sebastian, the National Credit Union Foundation's newest executive director, hopes the foundation can continue down its innovative path-both toward helping credit unions overcome their different challenges and toward improving its own operations.
"Of course I have only been in the job for a couple of weeks and the board and I haven't really had the chance to explore anything in detail," Sebastian said, "but I think some of the directions the foundation has been on for a while are worth continuing."
Sebastian officially began as executive director on June 14.
Most recently the CEO of the $1.6 billion GTE Federal Credit Union headquartered in Tampa, Fla., he has also served as general counsel for the NCUA and the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions as well as a co-founder of the Callahan and Associates consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. When asked why he would want to take on the job of running the NCUF day to day after such a full career, Sebastian just chuckled.
"Just not ready to retire, I guess," he said, adding that his daughter had predicted his taking the job within hours after he left GTE. "She said, 'Daddy, we knew you wouldn't be sitting still for long. We didn't know exactly what you would be doing, but we knew you would be doing something,' and so I am."
Sebastian has taken the helm at the NCUF just at the point when the organization was moving from primarily reacting to natural disasters and funding individual credit union projects to helping the industry focus on more strategic goals. For example, under its previous executive director, Steve Delfin, the organization moved toward making grants less often, but directing them into specific areas like financial education, transaction services or home ownership.
Delfin left the foundation at the turn of the year after receiving a job offer he had long wanted.
Under Delfin, the NCUF organization began sponsoring the development education program and the REAL Solutions program. Both are arguably focused on helping credit unions better address the fundamentals of their mission and build on their cooperative structure. And Sebastian noted that both of them, particularly the Real Solutions program, dovetailed very well with the innovative work the Filene Research Institute had begun in its "Ideas, Innovation and Implementation" program, also known as i3.
Sebastian stressed that he had only just visited the institute while on a trip to Madison, Wis., and said nothing has yet been discussed about the two organizations working together more closely. However, he said he could see how the Real Solutions program could function as almost a "real world laboratory" for testing the ideas the i3 program developed.
Sebastian said he looks forward to studying what Delfin has done to broaden and deepen the foundation's base of support, perhaps achieving Delfin's goal of being able to take donations not just from credit unions but also indirectly from credit union members who support its programs and goals.
"It's not any great secret that the current funding model, which served us well for years, might not be as suited to the current environment," Sebastian said. "Interest rates are currently about as low as they can go, and I don't think we can expect them to move much higher any time soon."
Low interest rates hurt the foundation's income because the organization takes the interest generated by funds credit unions deposit within its community investment fund and splits it between state credit union foundations and the credit unions themselves. Persistently low interest rates mean steadily small amounts of interest to support the foundation, and Delfin had been working on developing different approaches to funding the foundation, though its finances have still remained strong.
Sebastian praised the approach taken by Raleigh, N.C.-based State Employees' Credit Union, the second largest credit union in the country. The CU has a foundation that funds its programs through a $1-per-checking-account-per-month donation from its members. They can opt out of the donation, but the amount is small enough that few do so. Their participation gives the CU's foundation a strong monthly income that it can use to fund its charitable work.
Sebastian speculated that other credit unions could use a version of State Employees' approach to both fund their own foundations and direct money toward the state foundations and the NCUF.
"We used a similar approach at GTE to fund our responses to some very large natural disasters, the Asian tsunami [in 2004] and Hurricane Katrina," Sebastian said. "We were able to raise significant amounts of money with similar methods."
Innovation is especially important for credit unions now, Sebastian said, since their biggest challenge is to stay out in front of their members and continually offer products and services their members can use to better their financial lives.
"It's our challenge but really the challenge for all financial institutions," he said. "How to keep up and keep ahead of everything our members want and need us to do. It's a real challenge and we need to keep innovating to meet it."