As someone who firmly resides in a no regrets zone, Stacey Walker, board director at XCEL Federal Credit Union, has never had a problem pushing past her comfort levels.
“I hope that when all is said and done I can look back and say I made it happen. Whatever it may be from making the most of opportunities to expanding my knowledge base,” said Walker. “It’s important to push boundaries, and know that I’ve done what I can to make things happen not only for myself but the people around me and the community at large.”
It’s fitting that she’d be a board director at the first financial institution that essentially gave her financial freedom as a high school junior.
“Everyone has a story right? I was your typical unbanked youth in high school who’d get her allowance and spend it,” said Walker. “The summer after junior year I worked at the Social Security Administration and went from just my $20 a week allowance to hundreds of dollars, which I just gave to my dad to hold for me. I needed to find somewhere for my money, but I didn’t want my parents to have to co-sign. If I couldn’t open the account on my own, I didn’t want it.”
Six to seven banks later without any success, Walker got a tip from a co-worker to check out the credit union on site.
“I didn’t know anything about a credit union difference but XCEL, which was then known as the Port Authority of NY and NJ Federal Credit Union, gave me the opportunity to have financial independence and that was huge to me,” said Walker.
Her loyalty to the organization was sealed. She remained a member through college and law school and the experience pushed her to apply to become a director.
“I wanted to volunteer somewhere I knew I could do more, so I looked into joining the board of a nonprofit organization,” said Walker. “Even though I was a member, I didn’t know anyone at XCEL but sent in my résumé and heard back from someone on the nominating committee, went through the process and then didn’t hear anything. I thought O.K., well, I guess I didn’t get it.”
Still determined to be part of a nonprofit board, she participated in a United Way nonprofit training program, which not only provided a basic board education but also connected those interested in being directors within other organizations. A little over year later, Walker heard from XCEL and was welcomed on the board.
Over the past seven years as a director, she has expanded her role as a volunteer at the credit union. She recommended the development of new financial products for underserved markets, including unbanked youth, underbanked Americans and future banking generations. She proposed an online data storage database to archive board reports, policies and minutes for ease of access by volunteers and senior management and to increase transparency. She also encouraged greater interaction with members using social media sites like Facebook to create new products and scholarships just for younger members.
“It has been the most positive experience in my life and has been life changing for me,” said Walker of being a board director. “We have an opportunity to help people move from point A to point B and get on the right path of being better off than they were a month or year ago. Credit unions offer a lot to the community that people just don’t realize it. To be able to share how we can help beyond products has gone above and beyond my expectations.”
It wasn’t an easy path as Walker said the learning curve was steep but well worth the effort. Looking ahead she said some of the top challenges facing credit union boards today range from the director population and education and training to the viability of the industry as a whole in terms of relevance.
“There is so much regulation, every board member has to be well-versed on changes and new regulations/legislation coming down the pipeline. Conferences and training sessions are costly, so how can smaller credit unions ensure their volunteers get the education needed and how can larger credit unions help? We need to support those smaller credit unions providing niche services more through mentorship, support and shared resources. Otherwise, how are we different than the giant banks?” said Walker.
The greater question all credit unions need to ask themselves Walker said was if they are staying true to their mission and model.
“When you ask that question will you get the overwhelming ‘yes’ response from your staffers, the board and members alike?” asked Walker. “Every credit union is in existence for different reasons ,so you have to stay true to who you are. As similar as we may be each credit union is very different. We can’t stand on the status quo. That group association credit unions have always had since their inception isn’t as prevalent, so we have to raise the level of education among consumers so they understand the credit union difference.”
She added the same holds true for credit union boards.
“The diverse population of the board is important not only in terms of succession but also in whether they can continue to relate to the population they are serving today and in the future. I like the idea of associate director programs, where younger people can benefit from the experienced board members while slowly being exposed and introduced to the process.”
She added that the industry as a whole could also benefit from continuous board recruiting efforts.
“It needs to be a year round focus and go beyond having just a warm body,” said Walker. “There should be some discussion on what is the process, how can it be improved, how can we go about better vetting people who are interested in being board members and what can be done to encourage and reinforce their enthusiasm. I’ve been very fortunate with our board because I’ve always felt my voice was heard and I was making valuable contributions. It can be disconcerting and intimidating for new board members to have their ideas shot down because ‘we tried that before and it didn’t work.’ Maybe that person has a different angle or maybe the consumers’ behavior now is different so the response would be different.”
A big believer in education, Walker has made it point to reach out to younger members, speaking to students and educators in classrooms and conferences about the benefits of joining credit unions. She also regularly speaks to graduating seniors at Cardinal Spellman High School in New York about financial preparedness for college.
As for her own pursuit to learn more, through the American Bar Association, she completed a two-year fellowship in the Section of Business Law Credit Union Committee as a way to make the most of committee meetings while furthering discussions affecting credit unions. She presented at the 2008 WOCCU World Credit Union Conference in Hong Kong about student-run credit unions and presented at the Working In Support of Education Money Power Conference before national educators in economics, finance, and business in New York.
“Someone shared with me the best advice that it’s important to gain as much information and knowledge and build on it,” said Walker. “It’s something I’ve always kept in the back of my mind. What I found is that as I try to seek out greater understanding, it’s opened the door to great opportunities to do more.”