In an era of participatory politicking when Facebook, Twitter and other digital tools can turn any citizen into a lobbyist, have traditional trade associations entered their twilight years?
Fueling this argument are disaffiliations by big natural person credit unions, most recently by the 144,000-member, $1.6 billion Apple Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Fairfax, Va., which quit CUNA loudly in February. Said Apple FCU CEO Larry Kelly on his way to the exit, “Can you tell me one major thing that CUNA has done for credit unions in the last 12 years?”
Apple joined a small parade of exiting credit unions, including the $1 billion New Mexico Educators CU in Albuquerque, N.M., and the $570 million Kirtland New Mexico FCU. Also on the list, the $1.6 billion Texas Dow Employees CU of Lake Jackson.
“We don’t miss anything by not belonging to CUNA,” said Texas Dow CEO Ed Speed in a recent interview. “The trade associations are in search of a cause” and, in Speed’s mind, they haven’t found anything that justifies his credit union paying dues.
But, big as the headlines are when credit unions pull out of the associations, the reality in the trenches is different.
Three words are heard from many involved with credit unions when it comes to writing the obituaries for associations: Not. So. Fast. That is because there are loud arguments that the associations and state leagues do valuable work.
“I don’t believe a small number of sizable disaffiliations signals the death knell of trade associations,” said Dennis Dollar, a onetime NCUA chairman. “But it is a message that they must receive openly with an eye toward improving the value that credit unions feel they need from their trade groups. Every viable industry in America has one, and many have multiple trade groups representing their interests in Washington and on the state level as well. Credit unions will always need and support a strong credit union voice in the national and state capitals. We cannot afford not to have it.”
Then, too, disaffiliations only tell part of the story.
“We, in fact, are getting bigger, we are signing new members,” said Fred Becker, CEO of NAFCU. He added that, by his count, only two credit unions have an independent lobbying presence in Washington, meaning that if the industry is getting heard in the capital, it is getting heard via its associations.
“We serve our members with our lobbying and also with educational programs,” said Becker.
At CUNA, spokesperson Pat Keefe declined to reveal the number of CUNA members (NAFCU similarly declines to reveal its count), but Keefe did stress, disaffiliations aside, CUNA claims about 90% of credit unions as members. He also indicated that number has been stable for some years.
There is a reason for this. Associations could be replaced in an Internet era but not without considerable effort. Credit union consultant Marvin Umholtz explained, “The flaw in this logic about doing it oneself is that most credit union executives don’t have the time to keep up themselves, nor do they have specialists on the credit union staff to do it for them.”
Added Eli Lehrer, a vice president at Washington think tank The Heartland Institute, “Most credit unions are too small to effectively lobby. They need to join together in a trade association to gain leverage. In some industries social media could perhaps replace associations. But I do not see that happening with credit unions.”
Neither does Dave Osborn, CEO of the $1.28 billion Anheuser Busch Employees Credit Union in St. Louis. “Yes, there is a role for a trade association," he said. "Most credit unions need someone to lobby for the industry, analyze legislation and regulation, educate credit unions and then gain consensus on future directions for the industry.”
Christopher Stevenson, an executive at CUES, agreed, “CUES’ position is that credit unions need a voice in Washington and at the state level. The associations fill that need. There will be a place for trade associations going far into the future.”
Strong as those endorsements for the associations may be, it’s not all good news for them.
The disaffiliations may serve as a wake-up call as more grumbling, about dues and measurable results, is heard from the credit unions that have to write the annual checks to maintain membership. David Savoie, CEO of Louisiana Corporate in Metarie, La., offered this perspective on how associations will have to adjust to a new world.
“There is no greater example of the impact of social media on the old structures than what has happened in the corporate credit union industry over the last few years. Drastic change in the industry was triggered by a handful of individuals who sounded the alarm: an anonymous blogger, a single Wall Street Journal reporter and Chip Filson at Callahan, while most of the traditional authorities were still insisting that the ‘emperor had fine new clothes.’ In the new paradigm of social media, public opinion is quickly formed at the grass-roots levels because individuals have an abundance of information on issues. They no longer wait for opinion leadership from the trade associations, regulatory bodies and industry leaders. To survive, trade associations will need to become more driven by grass-roots opinion.”
It‘s too early to write off associations, said the credit union leaders, but they also are saying loudly and clearly that it is time for the associations to reinvent themselves to be more effective in a digital era. Said Dollar, “I believe the highest level of trade groups at both the federal and state level will find out what they need to fix in order to prevent defections and re-affiliate lost members. They will become stronger in the process, or at least they should if they respond effectively, which they have every incentive to do.”
Agreed Umholtz, “Rather than being totally replaced, I believe that the traditional credit union trade association will need to radically alter its business model to meet today’s expectations."
Cheney Speaks Up
Asked to comment on the beliefs of some that the big trade associations have entered their twilight in the Internet era, CUNA CEO Bill Cheney, in an email, offered a response.
“I tend to look at social media, as well as other Internet applications, as effective tools that can and do augment advocacy efforts. But I do not see these tools supplanting trade groups outright.
Part of our mission at CUNA is to serve as a unified voice of the credit union movement. For example, during the run-up to Bank Transfer Day last fall, we fielded hundreds of questions from reporters about the impact of this movement on credit unions. These reporters contacted us because they know that we are here to represent credit unions and have our finger on the pulse of the movement. The same holds true for lawmakers and policymakers here in the nation’s capital. They rely on us for information about credit unions, and the opinions of credit unions with regard to statutory and regulatory proposals that may have an impact on credit unions. Certainly, these folks can (and do) talk to specific credit unions within their constituencies, but they are also looking for a broader view that transcends a local perspective. In that regard, CUNA plays a vital role of connecting credit unions to lawmakers and policymakers, and vice versa.
Credit unions expect us to reach out to Congress and federal regulators every day on their behalves (something that, practically speaking, may be difficult for busy credit union leaders, staffs and volunteers to do). Thus, they have given us the resources to employ advocates, to put boots on the ground, as it were, to carry their message to lawmakers and policymakers. And, through the leagues, we are also able to bring credit union advocates to each of the state capitals to speak out on legislation and state regulations affecting credit unions.
Consensus within any industry, including ours, is sometimes a challenging goal to reach. However, trade groups can serve as a forum for all to voice their views (as CUNA attempts to do through its committee structure) in order to identify and stand behind a common position on issues. There are many issues before credit unions today, and CUNA, in partnership with the state leagues, is working every day to help credit unions build consensus and resolve those issues in favor of credit unions.”