It’s one thing if credit unions offer low-cost financial products and exceptional service, but it’s quite another if they teach members how to use their products responsibly.
Putting together a financial education program that includes online and face-to-face elements and is proven to improve members’ financial lives requires time, funding and a well-devised strategy.
There is no single, foul-proof formula for a successful financial education program, according to Filene Research Institute Director of Innovation Matt Davis.
“Success is often in the eye of the beholder,” he said. But he does list three key goals of a winning program: improving financial literacy (what members know about their finances), improving financial behavior (what they do with their knowledge) and improving financial capability (how well they’re equipped to improve their financial lives).
With a scarcity of resources at many credit unions, forming partnerships with local academic and financial services organizations is a popular solution for CUs with education programs. Davis said credit unions should look past the obvious in their collaboration efforts.
“There are opportunities for wider knowledge sharing amongst interested parties outside financial services,” Davis said. “What can we learn from teachers, firemen, game designers and retailers about how information can be delivered, packaged and absorbed?”
One credit union that has sustained a long-term, multifaceted financial education program is the $2.3 billion Wright-Patt Credit Union of Fairborn, Ohio. Wright-Patt CU’s program began four and a half years ago when it launched Savings Race, an Amazing Race-style video series that aired on a local news channel and featured the savings journeys of local families.
As a new component of Savings Race, the CU began Savings University, which offers a curriculum of savings classes to the community. Wright-Patt also holds seminars at various locations on college planning, financial planning and buying/selling property, which are led by financial experts from inside and outside the credit union. The taped Savings Race series is now called Savings Race–Home Edition and focuses on individuals chasing their dreams of homeownership.
Many online tools are offered to members and nonmembers through Wright-Patt’s website, including the ability to participate in Savings Race–Home Edition virtually. On the CU’s Savings Race website, a page titled Mini Races shows visitors how they can complete a checklist of personal finance improvement tasks, send in their checklist with required proof and become eligible to win prizes.
Tracy Fors, Wright-Patt’s marketing and business development director, said the CU structures its educational programs with the goal of a financially healthy membership in mind, which, eventually, can lead to more employee bonuses and a larger annual bonus dividend for members.
“The three stakeholders we have are our members, our employees and the credit union itself,” Fors said. “If our members are financially sound and secure, they’ll have better credit scores. They’ll also begin to rely on us and trust us more, and our employees will be able to work more easily and fluidly.”
Northeast Credit Union, a $695.8 million CU based in Portsmouth, N.H., has developed a financial education program solely for kids. It includes online articles that show parents how to teach their kids the basics of money management, contests that encourage children to save (in one contest, kids were asked to draw pictures of what they envision for their futures) and a program NECU organizes with other CUs and local schools, CU 4 Reality, which involves an in-class curriculum and annual fair that allows students to showcase their financial planning skills.
NECU adult members can also gain financial literacy through the CU’s library of online articles, webinars and tools, in-person seminars and in-branch education centers. This year, NECU plans to test a new program, Save Up, which allows members to earn points for positive financial actions and cash them in for prizes.
Partnering with other credit unions, industry education leaders and community organizations has been a key to NECU’s financial education program success, said President/CEO Peter Kavalauskas. NECU’s many collaborative efforts include offering articles and podcasts with help from the organization Financial Finesse and providing free tax preparation sites with United Way of the Greater Seacoast.
Keeping up with technology has been the biggest challenge of offering a comprehensive education program, Kavalauskas added. To stay in stride with changing technology, the CU has made an effort to incorporate webinars, podcasts and e-newsletters into its program.
“Our ‘people helping people’ philosophy has been our guide as we developed, and now expand upon, our financial education programs at NECU,” Kavalauskas said. “We want to give our members, and people in the communities we serve, the information and tools necessary to help them meet their financial goals and build strong financial futures. We believe this will, in turn, lead to stronger and healthier communities for all of us now and in the future.”
It’s important for credit unions to determine goals for their financial education programs as well as track how their programs impact participants. Davis advises CUs to measure the success of their programs according to their pre-determined goals. If the goal is to improve financial behavior, for example, CUs should compare the baseline of their participants’ behavior before they receive training to their behavior three months, six months and one year after training begins. CUs can also track participants’ credit scores, net worth and ability to reach their financial goals, Davis said.
To measure the success of its financial education program, Wright-Patt CU requests feedback that reveals changes to participants’ knowledge levels, financial planning skills and credit scores. For example, the CU asks seminar attendees to rate their knowledge of a topic on a scale of one to 10 before and after completing a workshop.
“We’ve seen comprehensive knowledge increases in people who complete entire seminar programs,” said Ivy Williams, Wright-Patt CU’s financial education and community outreach specialist. “We have them list what they’ve done or what they’ve learned – maybe they refinanced a loan to a better rate or learned how to read their credit score. We look at the behavior changes, the improvements in our member relationships and the big changes such as improved credit scores.”
NECU measures financial program success by tracking online tool usage and attendee numbers at school programs and seminars, which the CU said can help determine the needs of participants going into the future.