Economy Aside, Credit Unions Aid Cash-Strapped Charities
If you think it’s tough trying to pare down your holiday gift list, consider the task faced by credit unions scanning a long roster of deserving causes and deciding who to support.
Each credit union may exercise a different approach, but judging by those who shared their stories, they’ve all adopted a system for sorting through candidates.
For example, $594 million United Heritage Credit Union in Austin, Texas, has an eight-member committee drawn from both the credit union and the United Heritage Charity Foundation. Often lesser-known charities get the nod.
“The main charities continue to do well,” said United Heritage President/CEO Buddy Schroeder. “Smaller charities struggle a little bit more.”
The list of United Heritage Charity Foundation’s donations includes local organizations such as Ripples of Hope for Children, which works with abused and at-risk children, and Helping the Aging, Needy and Disabled which provides personal assistant services to the elderly and people with disabilities.
United Heritage also helps SafePlace for women experiencing sexual and domestic violence, and Saint Louise House, which offers housing and supportive services for homeless women and children.
Schroeder said the credit union’s members are very supportive. He cites not only their financial support but their participation in fundraising efforts such as an annual golf tournament, Lake Travis underwater and shoreline cleanup, Big Brothers Big Sisters school supply drive and bowl-a-thon and a Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
Originally, the biggest challenge was putting together such fundraising efforts and determining which events would succeed, Schroeder noted. Now, an equal challenge is figuring how to allocate the funds that were raised.
“If you can combine charitable donations with some sort of active involvement, for example our staff interacting with the charities as well as giving money, I think we can do a lot more for the charity and the visibility of the credit union,” Schroeder said.
About seven years ago, the $805 million Unitus Community Credit Union in Portland, Ore., established charitable guidelines that focused on basic needs for children and families such as food, clothing, shelter and medical care. This year, Unitus decided to dedicate each month to one of its nonprofit partners.
New Avenues for Youth, for instance, helps children, teenagers and young adults living on the streets by providing food, classes on basic skills for getting a job, interview clothes, internship opportunities and computer access.
“Our random act one month revolved around the fact donations to their food bank were extremely down and they were almost out of food,” explained Laurie Kessel, Unitus vice president of planning and business development. “So we worked it out with a local grocery store for them to go in and shop for $1,500 worth of food. It was then delivered to their location. We were on hand to help them put it away.”
Kessel said Unitus hears on almost a daily basis from groups struggling to get donations in the still-recovering economy. She indicated many companies have cut back on donations, and organizations without strong name recognition must rely on a small staff. So when Unitus opens a branch in a new location it seeks out a small nonprofit in the area to support.
If you’re a charity seeking support from Pen Air Federal Credit Union in Pensacola, Fla., you’ll want to coordinate your event calendar with theirs. In the past, requests to the $1.2 billion credit union have been funneled through the marketing department, where they are categorized according to time and how they fit the Pen Air brand.
“Our brand is very focused on a couple things,” said Patricia Veal, vice president of marketing at Pen Air. “Does it benefit some of our members? Does it benefit education? You don’t want to just make a monetary donation.”
Team efforts offering the staff a chance to become involved and create a win-win situation by providing visibility for the credit union get priority. There are already so many events proposed for 2013 that Pen Air has formed a committee to weigh resources against events.
One example was the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in October. In addition to raising more than $10,000 since becoming involved, half of the walkers were credit union employees.
“We would have more walkers but many of our offices are open Saturday mornings,” Veal noted. “This charity hits home with Pen Air because of staff that have been diagnosed with breast cancer and survived.”
Pen Air has also hosted the Tyler Jefferson Memorial 5K Run, named after an enlisted military person who was shot and killed outside the Pensacola Naval Air Station Corry Station during a robbery attempt. Proceeds go to Citizens Against Crime to fund a reward system for solving crimes. Organizers envision the event expanding to also benefit a scholarship program.
There are so many good causes both in the civilian sector and in the military community Pen Air serves, Veal said. Because the big challenge is time and personnel, it’s important to create parameters and funnel all the requests to one decision-making group within the credit union, she added.
Many credit unions want to focus their charitable efforts on local groups. That could post a challenge for an organization like Lake Trust Credit Union. Headquartered in Lansing, Mich., the $1.5 billion cooperative serves members across the state from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan.
In November, Lake Trust sponsored a Lake to Lake Food Drive. The credit union ended up colleting 21,019 pounds of food for families in Michigan. That was projected to yield 60,000 meals. The credit union partnered with Feeding America, West Michigan Food Bank, Greater Lansing Food Bank, Food Gathers, and Gleaners Food Bank of Southwest Michigan so the food collected stayed in local communities.
“Our members were very enthusiastic,” Keith Koppmeier, Lake Trust director of corporate responsibility and government relations, said. “We had a lot of calls from branch managers telling us how excited our members were.”
Koppmeier said people started bringing in food well before the official date of Nov 16. As a result, branches had to put out collection bins early. Two Men and a Truck Moving Company, headquartered in Lansing, volunteered to pick up food at the credit union’s Lansing area branches and take it to the food bank.
“With the economic downturn, there’s a lot of competition for giving. With the food drive, we’re helping to make a difference in the local community,”